Saturday, September 24, 2022

Seder 117: Numbers 20---Moses' Meltdown

 Numbers 20:1 reports the death of Miriam "in the first month."  The year is generally assumed to be the fortieth and final year of the Exodus, because of a time marker given later in the chapter.  Aaron's death is reported in verses 23-29, and we know from Num 33:38 that Aaron died on the first day of the fifth month of the fortieth year.   

By this time the older generation of Israelites had died, as the subject matter of Numbers 19 reminds us.  Verse 2 invites us to compare the next generation with the previous one.  At a time when water was in short supply, Israelites were grumbling, as had happened back in the first year of the journey (Exod 17).

On that previous occasion, God had directed Moses to strike a particular rock, and water came out of the rock (Exod 17:6).  This time God tells Aaron and Moses to speak to a rock, which again would be a source of water (Num 20:8).  

In Numbers 20 God shows no sign of being angry with the new generation of Israel.  They seem to be anxious to experience the blessings of the Promised Land rather than asking to return to Egypt.

Moses, on the other hand, loses control.  Rather than speaking to the rock, he strikes the rock in anger.  God still provides water, but he then lets Moses and Aaron know that they will not be entering the Promised Land.  Instead they will die during that year.

Why did Moses lose control?  Miriam's death could have been a factor.  It also may be that Moses was emotionally exhausted after the forty years in the wilderness, and all the accumulated frustration of dealing with the Israelites for 40 years has taken its toll.  He accuses the new generation of being rebels like their parents.  By being angry with them he misrepresents God, who is not angry with them and wants Moses to take a patient approach.  

Moses here might be compared to an old math professor who rants at a class of freshmen, "You freshmen are all alike!  You come to university unprepared, you skip class, and you're trying to take calculus when you can't even do algebra."  When a professor gets to that point, it is time to retire.

Here God does not punish Moses for a momentary slip-up.  Instead, he recognizes that Moses is not the appropriate person to lead the nation into the Promised Land.  He has served well and faithfully, and it is time to pass the baton to Joshua.    

Friday, September 23, 2022

Seder 117: Numbers 19---Dealing with Corpse Impurity

The subject matter of Numbers 19 is related to Lev 11-15, since the topic is the ritual impurity contracted through contact with dead bodies.  What role does this material play in the narrative of Numbers?   

Between Numbers 14 and Numbers 20, 38 years pass.  The text gives few specifics about what happened during that period.  One thing it does tell us is that the older generation of Israelites died during that period.  And each death resulted in ritual impurity for those who had contact with the body.

Numbers 19 gives instructions for dealing with corpse impurity.  A red cow would be sacrificed and its carcass burned up.  Some additional ingredients were added to the ashes---cedar wood, hyssop, scarlet yarn---perhaps to enhance the redness of the mixture, symbolizing blood.  

The ashes were a kind of purification offering in concentrated form.  Water containing the ashes was sprinkled on a person who had had contact with a corpse, along with any objects that had been rendered unclean through contact with the corpse.  

The instructions in Numbers 19 contain lots of fascinating details.  In Jewish tradition, these instructions are treated as a quintessential mystery, and their sometimes paradoxical nature is highlighted.  Still, the Tanakh says that there is value in meditating on these things (Ps 110:23). 

For example, those who handled the ashes and sprinkled the water contracted a minor ritual impurity. So how did the ashes that cleansed the impure cause a minor impurity for others who produced and handled them?

Commentator Roy Gane has suggested a rationale for this rule.  He is one of the modern scholars who has built conceptual models for how the rituals of Israel worked.  The ashes were going to absorb a lot of ritual impurity, and because of that potential, they were treated, even before they were used, as if that absorption of impurity had already occurred.  

This reminds us of the fact that sins throughout history have been forgiven through the death of Jesus, including sins committed before the Incarnation, because Jesus' death had as good as happened even before it occurred.  He was the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8).  

One batch of ashes from a cow sacrificed at a particular time could be used to remove impurity over some long period of time after that.  This reminds us of the fact that through Jesus' death, sins committed long after the crucifixion have been forgiven.  

Despite the great potential of the ashes to remove impurity, water had to be added and the ashes sprinkled in order for purification to occur.  Similarly, for our sins to be forgiven, we have to accept the sacrifice that Jesus has made for us.  

In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on September 17, 2022, Rob Wilson gave further discussion of the mysteries of Numbers 19.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Seder 116: Psalm 110 and Hebrews 7---Who Was Melchizedek?

 A major image in Seder 116 is the rod or scepter, a symbol of leadership and rulership (Num 17; Ps 125:3; Isa 10:10, 24).  This symbol appears in prophecies of the rule of the Messiah (Ps 2:9; 110:2).  

In Psalm 110, seen by New Testament authors as a key messianic prophecy, there is a cryptic reference to the Messiah being "a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek" (verse 4).  I have discussed this reference in a previous post.  In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on Sept 10, 2022, Kyle Kettering presented more on Melchizedek.   

Kyle explained that because of Psalm 110:4, there was widespread speculation about the identity of Melchizedek during the Second Temple period, as seen in texts like 11QMelch and 2 Enoch.  The latter presents Melchizedek as the product of a miraculous birth to Sopanim, wife of Methuselah's grandson Nir.  Melchizedek was often seen as a supernatural, exalted figure.  Kyle mentioned a third-century Christian sect called the Melchizedekians that saw Melchizedek as a heavenly power superior to Jesus! 

Some Christians have held Melchizedek to be a Christophany, a pre-incarnate appearance of the Messiah.  Others argue against this view.  James Borland, who believed that a number of appearances of the angel of the Lord were Christophanies, argued that Melchizedek did not fit the pattern of these other appearances. Rather, Genesis seems to present Melchizedek as a Jebusite priest-king.

Some confusion can result from misunderstanding the argument of Hebrews 7.  The author of Hebrews is not saying that Melchizedek is an eternal being.  Rather, he is saying that Melchizedek is a fitting type and forerunner of the Messiah (who is an eternal being) because there is no record of his birth or death.  Kyle pointed out that a major thrust of the book of Hebrews is the superiority of the Messiah to all people and angels.

Seder 116: Psalm 125 and Isaiah 10---"the scepter of wickedness shall not rest on the land"

 Psalm 125 is one of the "psalms of ascents," those associated with visits to Jerusalem for the annual pilgrim festivals.  People arriving in Jerusalem might look up and realize that with all the insecurities of life, God was the one dependable thing.  From his throne he rules the Universe, and those who trust in him are on solid ground (v 1).  Mt Zion represents God's presence, power, and protection.  

Verse 3 of this psalm begins with an important affirmation: "For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest on the land allotted to the righteous." Israel might experience correction, even exile, but ultimately they would be restored to the land.  

Since God is just and faithful, God's people can pray the "thy kingdom come" prayer for justice and peace to prevail (vv 4-5).  

We see one illustration of Psalm 115:3 in the prophecy of Isaiah 10, which seems to date from a time shortly after the mighty Assyrian Empire conquered the northern tribes of Israel, with capital at Samaria, in 722 BC.  [Commentator Geoffrey Grogan (EBC) notes that we know when Assyria took the places mentioned in Isa 10:9, with the latest of those conquests occurring in 717 BC.]  The arrogant Assyrians assumed that they easily would be able to take over the southern kingdom of Judah as they had the northern kingdom (vv 7-11).  However, God would not allow that (vv 12-34).  Ultimately the Messiah, the "mighty God" of Isa 9:6-7, would rule in Jerusalem (Isa 10:21; 11:1-11).   

Seder 116: Numbers 17-18---Aaron's Priesthood Affirmed

After Korah's rebellion challenged the high priesthood of Aaron, God took further action to endorse that priesthood.  He instructed each tribe to submit a staff to Moses, who would place the staffs in the tabernacle in front of the ark.  

On the day after Moses placed  the staffs in the tabernacle, the staff of Aaron, representing the tribe of Levi, had bloomed overnight and bore ripe almonds.  This was a powerful demonstration of God's support of Aaron's priesthood.  The staff was then placed near the ark as a reminder to would-be rebels (Num 17).

There is additional symbolism in this miracle.  The Hebrew word for "blossoms" in Num 17:8 is the same as the word for the gold "plate" on the high priest's turban (Exod 28:36).  

The tabernacle menorah was patterned after an almond tree.  The word for "almond tree" is similar to the word for "watching," as we see in Jer 1:11-12.  In Jer 1:11, Jeremiah sees a vision of an almond branch, and God explains the meaning of this image:  "I am watching over my word to perform it."  So Aaron's budding staff carried the message that God was watching and would surely carry out his word.  Rebels would be punished, and Israel, after its period of training, indeed would occupy the Promised Land.

The miracle got its message across, causing the Israelites to consider the fact that God was present among them.  "Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the Lord, shall die,  Are we all to perish?" (v 13)  

Commentator Dale Brueggemann suggests two answers to this question:  (1) No, not if you put your trust in God. (2) Yes, the older generation is going to perish before the end of the 40 years.  

Additional response is given in Num 18, where the importance of the Levites is emphasized. further.  The Levites would guard the tabernacle and act in some sense as spiritual "lightning rods" (vv 1-7).  Because of their important role, they received substantial benefits from things offered to God (vv 8-19).  The tithes of the Israelites also went to them.  This was the Levites' income, so they in turn would give tithes to the priests. 

Israel would be making a substantial investment in the tabernacle's operations, putting their "treasure in heaven."

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Seder 115: Psalm 46---Finding Refuge in God with the Sons of Korah

 When the rebellious Korah, possibly engulfed in flames, fell into a pit and disappeared, his children were spared (Num 26:11).   According to a later tradition, they were lifted into the air above the pit and kept safe from harm.  

Descendants of Korah included, most famously, the prophet Samuel.  David appointed Samuel's grandson Heman to be one of those in charge of the service of song at the tabernacle (1 Chron 6:31-38), and his descendants continued serving in that way.

Eleven psalms (twelve, if Psalm 43 is counted as a continuation of Psalm 42) are associated with the sons of Korah.  In these psalms, we find evidence that the rescue from death that their ancestors experienced left a lasting imprint upon the family's collective consciousness.  

One prominent example is in Psalm 46, which praises God as "our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble" (v 1).  This psalm, the source of Martin Luther's hymn "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," goes on to declare, "Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way ..."(v 2).  

The psalm pictures the Day of the Lord, a time of eschatological judgment, and asserts that those who find refuge in God have nothing to fear from that time of judgment.  Though we have all at one time been rebels like Korah, if we turn to God in repentance, we are rescued and will one day be resurrected to eternal life.  

The psalm goes on to picture God putting down all rebellion and ruling the world from his throne in Zion.  From that throne will flow life-giving waters (v 4; Ezek 47; Rev 22).  

Seder 115: Numbers 16---Korah's Rebellion

 At some point during Israel's 40-year sojourn in the wilderness (after the middle of the second year and before the end of the 39th), a group of Reubenites, Levites, and leaders confronted Moses and Aaron.  

The Reubenites Dathan and Abiram mistakenly blamed Moses for having not yet led them to the Promised Land.  Painting a misleadingly rosy picture of life in Egypt, they accused Moses of deceiving them by taking them away from a "land of milk and honey" into a desolate wilderness (Num 16:12-14).  

A group of Levites led by Korah, a cousin of Moses and Aaron, seemed to have resented the fact that the priesthood was reserved for Aaron's family.  

Understandably, Moses resented their false and unfair accusations.  It was not his fault that Israel had not reached the Promised Land.  He asserted to God, "I have not taken one donkey from them, and I have not harmed one of them" (v 15).  

A few centuries later, the prophet Samuel gave a similar defense of himself in an address to the people of Israel. "Whose ox have I taken?  Or whose donkey have I taken?" (1 Sam 12:3)  In using this language, Samuel implicitly compared the Israelites of his day who demanded a king to Korah.  (1 Sam 11:14-12:22 is a traditional haftarah portion associated with this part of Numbers in the annual Torah cycle.)   

After giving the rebels a night to consider their actions and repent, God judged them decisively.  Dathan and Abiram and their families were swallowed up by the ground.  Those who aspired to the priesthood were incinerated.   Tradition has it that Korah, the ringleader, was in flames when the ground swallowed him up.  

One Reubenite, On the son of Peleth, is mentioned as a participant in the revolt in Num 16:1 but is not mentioned again.  Tradition has it that he thought better of his actions and did not continue in the rebellion.  In one scenario, his wife dissuaded him from continuing by pointing out that his status would not improve even if the rebellion were successful (b. Sanhedrin 109b-110a; Numbers Rabbah 18.20).  Proverbs 14:1 ("The wisest of women builds her house, but folly with her own hands tears it down") is traditionally illustrated by contrasting the wives of On and Korah.  

In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on Sept 3, 2022, Rob Wilson contrasted the examples of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, with those of Moses, Aaron, and the wife of On.  He also reminded us that in the Mishnah, in Pirke Avot 5:10, Korah's dispute is seen as one that is "not for the sake of heaven."  

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Seder 114: New Testament Connections with Numbers 15---the Unpardonable Sin, Tassels

 Numbers 15:30-31 warns against defiant sins, those committed with a "high hand."  The New Testament contains analogous warnings.  For example:

1 John 5:16---"If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life---to those who commit sins that do not lead to death.  There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that."

Heb 6:4-6---"For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt."

Mark 3:28-30---"Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin"---for they were saying, 'he has an unclean spirit'. "

The New Testament also contains a number of references to the tassels worn on the corners of Israelite garments.  

Matthew 14:35-36---"And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick and implored him that they might only touch the fringe the fringe of his garment.  And as many as touched it were made well."

Many see here a fulfillment of Malachi 4:2.  

Jesus also criticized the wearing of tassels for show:

Matt 23:5---"They do all their deeds to be seen by others.  For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long." 

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Seder 114: Numbers 15---Instructions that Send a Message

 The book of Numbers deals with the final 39 of the 40 years that the children of Israel spent in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt. Chapters 1-14 take place during year 2 of the wilderness sojourn, and chapters 20-36 cover events from year 40.  

That means that everything we are given about years 3-39 is in chapters 15-19.  In terms of narrative, we are only told about a few events from those years:

  • a rebellious man (Num 15:32-36);
  • Korah's rebellion and the ensuring plague (Num 16);
  • the budding of Aaron's rod (Num 17).
The rest of Num 15-19 contains instructions much like those given in the book of Leviticus.  The book of Numbers as a whole has an unusual structure.  Sections of narrative are interspersed with sections of instruction.  The first time one reads the book, the organization can seem rather random.

To discern the full message intended in each section of instruction, we should pay close attention to the placement of those sections within the book.  Commentator Roy Gane identifies a chiastic structure in the first 21 chapters of Numbers:

A.  Organization for conquest (ch 1-10)

       B. Corpses at the "graveyard of greed" (ch 11)

             C.  Moses leadership, prelude to rebellion (ch 12-13)

                    D.  Rebellion (ch 14)

                          E.  Loyalty:  inadvertent versus defiant sin (ch 15)

                    D'.  Rebellion (ch 16)

               C' Aftermath of rebellion; Aaron's leadership (ch 17-18)

        B'.  Corpse contamination (ch 19)

A'. Conquests (ch 20-21)

Chapter 15, in the middle of the chiasm, sends some important messages.  It comes right after chapter 14, when the Israelites show they are not ready to enter the Promised Land and consequently learn that they will be spending 38 extra years in the wilderness.  So it is significant that Num 15:1-21 deals with offerings that will be made when the Israelites reach the Promised Land.  This is an affirmation that they will indeed reach the land, and that they will be blessed there with abundant grain, wine, and oil.  They will have bountiful harvests and offer the firstfruits of those harvests to God.  

They will continue to commit sins, including some pretty serious ones.  But if they remain loyal to God, those sins can be forgiven.  It is only when people defiantly reject God and the covenant that God cannot work with them (vv 22-31).  

Verses 32-36 give an example of the kind of defiant sin described in verses 30-31.  A man deliberately breaks the Sabbath and continues doing so when confronted about the matter.  The Israelites seek God's guidance on how to handle the situation, and God gives a sentence of death by stoning.  

Verses 37-41 instruct the Israelites to wear tassels on the corners of their garments.  The tassels will include a cord of blue.  The blue was (and still is) made with a valuable and expensive dye from murex snails.  This color was also part of priestly and royal garments.  In the tassels, it carried a message that the Israelites constituted a "royal priesthood and holy nation."  They should remember who they were are live accordingly:  

"And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after" (v 39). 

Verse 39 contains a reference to the rebellion in chapter 14.  The Hebrew word for 'follow after" means to "spy out" (see the ESV footnote).  The Israelites should live by faith in God, not by fear and human desire.  

There are lessons here for all the people of God during their time of sojourning.  Blessings are ahead if we remember who we are and walk in faith and loyalty to God.  

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Seder 114: Psalm 54---A Confident Prayer for Rescue

 Psalm 54 is one of a handful of Psalms linked by its superscription to a specific episode in David's life--the time "when the Ziphites went and told Saul, 'Is not David hiding among us? ' "  The reference here is to 1 Sam 23:19.  Ziph was in the territory of Judah (Joshua 15:55), west of the Dead Sea. 

The midrash on Psalm 54 comments that the bad behavior of King Saul led to further bad behavior among his subjects, based on the principle stated in Proverbs 29:12:  "If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked."

The midrash also observes that if you are being pursued by the king, as David was, there is no one to turn to but the King of the Universe.  And David did just that. "O God, save me by your name, and vindicate me by your might," he prayed (Ps 54:1).   God's name is associated with his faithfulness and saving activity on behalf of his people.

An additional comment in Midrash Psalms 54 associates God's "might" with God's instruction.  David is pictured saying to God that since escaped slaves are not to be returned to their masters (Deut 23:15-16), how much more should a prince like David not be turned over to the king who wants to kill him.  

"For strangers have risen against me," David continues (v 3).  Some manuscripts have "insolent men" rather than "strangers."  The two are really very similar.  "Strangers" can be those who have become estranged from God by their disobedience or insolence.  These are people who do not recognize God's authority.  

David is confident that God will protect him and sustain his life (v 4).  He is also confident that those who seek to kill him will receive the punishment due to them for their actions (v 5).  He looks forward to bringing an offering in gratitude for his deliverance and celebrating God's goodness with the community of faith (vv 6-7).  

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Seder 113: Numbers 14---God Pronounces Judgment

 A year and a half after leaving Egypt, the children of Israel were camped just south of the Promised Land, but most had not yet developed sufficient trust in God to proceed.  

At this point God proposed the possibility of starting over with a nation descended from Moses (Num 14:12).  God had previously made such a proposal after the Golden Calf incident (Ex 32:10).  Since Israel had been called to follow God in the land of Canaan, failing to follow God and failing to enter Canaan were, in effect, rejections of their calling.  God's proposals to start over in these cases highlight the serious nature of the sins in Exodus 32 and Numbers 14.

These proposals were also a test of Moses' frame of mind.  In both cases Moses argued against the proposals, interceding for the Israelites by appealing to God's character and reputation (Num 14:13-19).  

God approved Moses' request and then pronounced judgment.  Israel's time in the wilderness would now last for 40 years, and none of the adult males counted in the census of Num 1 (which included all tribes except Levi) would enter the Promised Land, except for Joshua and Caleb.  The ten leaders who had brought back a negative report from Canaan were put to death immediately.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Seder 113: Sermon----A Question of Timing

In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on August 20, 2022, Kyle Kettering examined the "how long?" motif in the Bible.  He observed that the question has different meanings depending upon who is asking it.  

When God asks the question, it often means, "Where is trust?  How long will it be before my people trust me?"  That is the meaning of the question in Num 14 and in Exodus 16:28.  When Jesus asks the question is Luke 9:41, he is wondering how long it will take his disciples to be fully trained and able to take the Gospel to the world.  

On the other hand, when the question is asked by people---e.g., in Ps 13:1-2; 74:10---it often means, "Where is justice?  When will you punish the wicked?"  

These questions are two sides of the same coin, Kyle said.  God acts more slowly than we might like because he is patient with us.  He wants as many as possible to come to repentance so that they will not have to be judged (2 Peter 3:9).  Fortunately for us, his mercy outweighs his justice (Ex 34:6-7).  

For us, the important "how long" question is the one that God and Jesus are asking.  How long will we put off the spiritual work that needs to be done?

Friday, August 19, 2022

Seder 113: Psalm 13---"How Long, O Lord?"

 In the midst of a severe trial, the psalmist asks, "How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?" (Ps 13:1).  It seems that God has "hidden his face," the opposite of the "shining face" of the Aaronic blessing.  He longs for the protection, grace, and peace of Num 6:25-26.    

He asks "how long?" four times in verses 1-2.  Midrash Psalms matches these four "how longs" with four times when God asked the Israelites how long they would continue in disobedience to him---two in Num 14:11, one in Num 14:27, and one in Ezek 16;28.  It also matches the four "how longs" with the four kingdoms of Daniel 7 and says that Israelites asked "how long" when they were being oppressed by these four kingdoms.

These midrashim are hinting that the delay in God's response may be the result of sin, and perhaps it is this possibility that has the psalmist "taking counsel in his soul" to find places where he may have fallen short.

As the trial continues, he prays that God will "consider" him favorably and answer him, which will bring light to his eyes (v 3).  This is for the sake of God's reputation.  If God does not intervene, the enemy will conclude that God lacks power or is not faithful (v 4).  Moses prayed this kind of prayer in Num 14:15-16.  

The psalmist is not overcome with despair, but trusts God.  He anticipates praising God in song when God intervenes on his behalf (vv 5-6).  The psalm shows a transition from despair to quiet trust.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Seder 112: Numbers 13-14---The Power of Providential Thinking

 In July 2022, the book ranked number 2 on the Publishers Weekly Religion Nonfiction bestseller list was Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking, a book originally published in 1952.  I was a little surprised to read this, having not heard or thought about this title in years.    

Certainly, though, the importance of how we perceive things is illustrated in Num 13-14, where two groups of men saw the same things on their scouting mission to the land of Canaan but drew entirely different conclusions.  

Here it was a matter of recognizing reality rather than just opting to see things positively.  Joshua and Caleb kept sight of the fact that the King of the Universe was with them.  James Whitman has suggested to me that we see in Joshua and Caleb "the power of providential thinking."

In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on August 13, 2022, Kyle Kettering reflected on the example of Caleb, one of the most admired figures in the Bible.  The name Caleb means "dog," but the reference in this case is not derogatory.  In the Ancient Near East this name and its cognates were used to designate someone as a loyal servant of a deity.  

Kyle described Caleb as a bulldog who clung to a vision of settling in the Promised Land for 40 years and refused to let it go. 

Kyle noted that all twelve of the delegated on the fact-finding mission to Canaan had seen 

  • slavery in Egypt.
  • a miraculous Exodus.
  • Yahweh on the mountain.
  • Yahweh in the tabernacle.
  • the goodness of the land.
  • the people of the land.
In addition, Caleb saw 

  • that he was a leader of Judah, a key tribe.
  • the courage of friends fail.
  • righteous men go weak.
  • the need for immediate action (Num 13:30).
  • the need to speak up for reality.
  • the potential of the land.
  • the power of God forgotten.
  • thirty-eight years later, the promise fulfilled.
For us, Kyle concluded, the question is, "What do we see?"       

Seder 112: Numbers 13-14---Sending the Spies

 As Numbers 13 opens, it is the summer of the second year of the exodus and the children of Israel are camped just south of Canaan.  In Numbers 13:1-2, God instructs Moses to send a delegation of twelve leaders, one from each tribe (other than Levi), on a fact-finding mission to Canaan.  

Experienced Bible students know that more details are given in Deut 1:19-23, where Moses recalls this moment from the vantage point of 38 and a half years later.  He remembers that Israelites had requested that he authorize such a mission, and that he had been in favor of the idea. 

One textual tradition, preserved in the Samaritan Pentateuch, places Deut 1:20-23a after Num 12 and before Num 13:1.  This tradition favors a sequence of events in which Israelites had requested a fact-finding mission, Moses asked God about the matter, and God than gave his permission/approval for such a mission.  

In light of how things turned out, the advisability of the plan to spy out the land has been questioned.  Certainly there was no requirement for such a plan.  God was leading them and knew everything they would need to know about their destination.  On the other hand, the plan had considerable upside.  If the twelve leaders liked what they saw and became excited about the prospects of life in Canaan, they would communicate their excitement to their tribes, and the people might unite behind Moses. 

In Num 13:4-15, the tribes are listed in an order that intersperses sons of Leah with sons of Rachel.  The ordering may emphasize the importance of unity among the tribes.

The plan can also be seen as a kind of test.  If the Israelites were ready to enter the Promised Land, they would catch Moses' vision of the good land that lay before them.  If they were not yet ready to enter the Promised Land, they might shrink back in fear, indicating that they needed more training and preparation. 

There was plenty in Canaan to create excitement among the spies.  Early in their trip they reached Hebron, where their forefathers had spent much time.  Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah were buried nearby at Machpelah (Gen 23).  It would have been a thrill to set foot in this special place where their ancestors had lived.  

This was a land where great agricultural production was possible, as evidenced by the huge cluster of grapes that the spies brought back.  

There were also challenges to be faced.  The land contained a number of warring city states with fortifications, and the inhabitants included giants who were descended from the Nephilim, the offspring of angels and people mentioned in Gen 6:4.  These giants might have the assistance of evil supernatural powers.  

Two of the delegation, Joshua and Caleb, were energized by the opportunities they saw. "Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it," Caleb encouraged the people (Num 13:30).  

Sadly, ten of the twelve members of the delegation were driven to despair by the challenges ahead..  "We seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them," they lamented (v 33).  In their fear they lost sight of the God who was with them.  A midrash on this verse has God saying, "How do you know how you seemed to them?  Perhaps I made you seem to them like angels."  In fact, there was widespread fear of the Israelites among the inhabitants of Canaan, a fear that was still present 38 years later (Josh 2:9).  

The negative report of the spies caused despair in the camp on the night of their return, a night traditionally identified as the Ninth of Ab, a day connected with a number of calamities in Israel's history.  The next day there were threats of mutiny, as many wanted to turn around and go back to Egypt (Num 14:2-4,10).  

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Seder 112: Psalm 10---Temporary Success of the Wicked

 Psalm 10 is one of 34 psalms that has no superscription in the MT, one of only 3 in Book 1 (the others in Book 1 are Psalms 1 and 2).  In the LXX, there are 17 psalms with no superscription, and Psalms 9 and 10 are combined as Psalm 9.

Like Psalm 73, Psalm 10 deals with the question of the temporary success enjoyed by the wicked (see verses 2-11).  When the wicked exploit others with seeming impunity, they may be emboldened to ramp up their bad behavior and mistake God's patience for indifference.  They imagine that they will "not be moved" (v 6), something that is really only true for those who trust in God (Ps 15:5; 16:8; 125;1).

The wicked tend to use speech as a weapon.  "His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under his tongue are mischief and iniquity" (v 7).  Paul quotes this verse from the LXX in Rom 3:14 as part of a string of scriptures showing man's universal sinfulness.  We shouldn't think of "the wicked" in this psalm as just someone other than us; we all have sinned.      

The psalmist prays in vv 12-15 for God to intervene on behalf of those exploited by the wicked.  He appeals to God's reputation (v 13) and righteous character (v 14) and prays a "thy kingdom come" prayer for the elimination of all evil (v 15).  In verses 16-18, God's universal rule is affirmed.  The success of the wicked is just a temporary phenomenon.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Seder 111: Numbers 12---Moses' "Cushite Wife" and the Jealousy of Miriam and Aaron

A wise saying has been attributed to the 19th century American financier J.P. Morgan:  "There are two reasons for everything----a good reason, and the real reason."

Moses' older siblings, Miriam and Aaron, at one point "spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married" (Num 12:1).  Since the "Cushite woman" is mentioned in the Bible only in this verse, her identity has been the subject of much speculation. 

We know that Moses had a wife named Zipporah, daughter of Jethro the Midianite (Ex 2:21-22; 3:1).  When Moses returned to Egypt he did not bring his family into the dangerous situation he would be facing, but he was reunited with his family at Mt Sinai (Ex 18:2,5).  

In Hab 3:7, we read, "I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction; the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble."  This parallelism in this verse indicates that "Cushan" is another name for "Midian" or some part of Midian.  Based on this verse, one possibility is that the "Cushite wife" is Zipporah, with "Cushite" meaning "from Cushan."  Perhaps some friction had developed between Miriam and Zipporah, the two most important women in Moses' life.  

On the other hand, the adjective "Cushite" is usually a reference to Cush, the region south of Egypt in today's Sudan.  Some have speculated that Zipporah's mother was a Cushite, so that Zipporah could also be called a Cushite.  

Another possibility is that Moses had married a Cushite who was part of the "mixed multitude" that joined the Israelites on the Exodus.  Perhaps Zipporah had died, or perhaps they had had a falling out related to the "circumcision incident" recorded in Exodus 4, or perhaps this was just an additional wife.  Miriam could have been critical of this second marriage.  

There was also a body of legend surrounding the first 40 years of Moses' life, before he fled to Midian.  Stephen seems to make reference to this in Acts 7:22 when he says that Moses "was mighty in his words and deeds."  Josephus records a legend in which Moses, while acting as an Egyptian military leader, marries a Cushite princess.  Perhaps this was the Cushite wife, and Miriam  was criticizing something about this marriage.  

Some today wonder if there was a racist aspect to the criticism of the Cushite wife.  It is known that ancient Egyptians tended to harbor some prejudice against Cushites.  

Rabbinic tradition proposes an elaborate and imaginative scenario meant to portray everyone in the best possible light.  In this scenario Miriam and Aaron are saying that Zipporah is special and distinctive in the same way that a Cushite's dark skin is distinctive, and they are critical of Moses because he has become so focused on spiritual matters that he has stopped sleeping with Zipporah.  

Whatever the identity of the Cushite wife, the real reason for Miriam and Aaron's complaint is that they wanted a more prominent leadership role in Israel.  They said, "Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses?  Has he not spoken through us also?" (Num 12:2)

Moses is described here as "very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth" (v 3).  The word for "meek" could be a reference to humility, or it could be a reference to how weighed down he was by the burden of leading the Israelites.  In any case, he didn't reprimand his older sister and brother.  

But God did.  God made it clear that Moses had a special relationship with him and was to be treated with appropriate respect (vv 4-9).  And he struck Miriam with a serious skin condition.  Her skin became "like snow," perhaps a sort of poetic justice if Miriam had said something derogatory about the skin color of the "Cushite wife."  

Moses interceded for his sister.  "O God, please heal her---please" (v 13).  And God did so after a week of punishment.  In Num 11-12 God's mercy is prominently displayed, as Rob Wilson pointed out in a sermon at Church of the Messiah on Aug 6, 2022.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Seder 111: Numbers 11---Support for Moses

 In response to Moses' plea for help, God directed Moses to gather "seventy men of the elders of Israel" who would be empowered to provide extra support for Moses (Num 11:16).   

"I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them," God told Moses.  Some have actually seen this as a punishment to Moses, as if the Spirit were some subtance that he possessed in a finite quantity and would subsequently possess in a lesser quantity.  Instead, as Jewish commentator Joseph H. Hertz has observed, the situation can be likened to a candle, which can be used to ignite other candles and continue to burn as brightly as before.  

When these elders received the Spirit, they prophesied (v. 25).  The end of verse 25 has been translated in two different ways.  Most translations say that the elders "did not continue doing it" (ESV).  Others---KJV, Targums, Vulgate, Martin Luther---say instead that the elders did not cease prophesying.  In any case, the elders were equipped to assist Moses.  

The names of two who were not standing with Moses and also prophesied were given in verse 26---Eldad and Medad.  Opinions differ as to whether Eldad and Medad were among the 70 or were in addition to the 70.  One tradition proposes that six elders were chosen from each tribe, and that then 70 were chosen from those 72.  In this scenario, Eldad and Medad were the two "extras."  

Joshua expressed concern to Moses about what Eldad and Medad were doing.  Apparently he was worried that they were undermining Moses' authority. Moses, however, was not concerned.  He knew that the more people who were led by the Spirit, the better.  In his wish that all of the Israelites could be led by the Spirit, he anticipated events prophesied later ( Deut 30:6; Jer 31:33-34; Ezek 11:19-20; Joel 2:28-29).

There is a parallel event in the ministry of Jesus, where Jesus' disciples worried about the fact that someone outside of their group was casting out demons in the name of Jesus (Luke 9:49).  Jesus' response was, "Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you: (v 50).  

Because of Joshua's concern about Eldad and Medad, there has been much speculation about the content of the prophecy of Eldad and Medad.  For example, there is a (now lost) book called the Book of Eldad and Modad (Medad was also known in Greek as "Modad") that apparently discussed what they prophesied.  We know about this book from the Shepherd of Hermas, a Christian work from the second century AD, which gives a quote from it:  "The Lord is near to those who turn to him."  This thought is similar to James 4:8:  "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you."  

We do know some Jewish traditions about what Eldad and Medad prophesied.  One says that they called upon Israelites to repent of their gluttony.  Another says that they were talking about Gog and Magog (i.e., end-time prophecy).  A third tradition says that they predicted Moses would die before the Israelites reached the Promised Land and Joshua would be the one to lead them there.  This third one is meant to explain why Joshua was upset.  

If Eldad and Medad were calling for repentance, not everyone listened.  God sent judgment against those consumed by gluttony (vv 31-35).  

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Seder 110: Num 10-11---Moses' Anticipation, Israel's Lusts

 After almost a year at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites broke camp and resumed their journey to the Promised Land on the twentieth day of the second month of the second year of the Exodus.  

Moses was looking forward to the journey with eager anticipation.  We catch a glimpse of his excitement when he invites one of his in-laws, Hobab, to accompany them (Num 10:29-32).  He emphasizes the good things that lie ahead:  "Come with us, and we will do good to you, for the Lord has promised good to Israel" (v 29).  

Hobab initially declines, but he may have finally agreed.  We do know that the Kenites, the branch of the Midianite family to which Hobab belonged, did settle in the Promised Land (Judges 1:16; 4:11).  

Incidentally, there are two main views on Hobab's identity.  If we take Reuel (Exod 2:28) to be another name for Jethro (Exod 3:1), then Hobab was Moses' brother-in-law.  On the other hand, if Reuel was Jethro's father, then Hobab is another name for Jethro.  

Sadly, not all of the Israelites had caught Moses' optimistic vision.  This quickly became apparent when people started complaining (Num 11;1-3).  

A year earlier, at the beginning of the Exodus, there had also been lots of complaining, and God had dealt with it patiently (Ex 15-17). The Israelites had just been uprooted from their homes and routines and were disoriented and afraid.  But in the time at Sinai, God had provided plenty of structure and order to help the people feel secure.  This new round of complaining had a different motivation, and God acted decisively to correct it, sending a message with fire (Num 11:1).  

Some of the complaints reflected boredom with Israel's menu, which was based on the manna that God provided daily (vv 4-6).  If the Food Network had existed in those days, there might have been one main program, with it a title like "Make It With Manna."  But there would have been many, many episodes, given how versatile manna was (vv 7-9).  Since manna was "the bread of the angels" (Ps 78:25), the program could have had special guest appearances from angels who could demonstrate advanced manna preparation.  

We do not have much sympathy with this round of complaints.  The complainers had lost sight of the big picture and were being driven by lusts.  

We do understand, though, that lust is a problem to which none of us is immune.  Paul admonished early Christ-followers at Corinth to learn the lessons contained in these accounts (1 Cor 10:11-12). "Therefore let anyone that thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall," he concluded. 

Moses apparently was blindsided by the attitudes that Israelites were displaying.  These developments were very discouraging to him.  He felt that he had failed as a leader, and he poured out his heart to God, airing his frustrations (Num 11:11-15).    

Seder 110: Psalm 9---Thy Kingdom Come

 Because of verses 13-14, Psalm 9 is usually classified as an "individual lament" psalm, calling for God's help in a time of trial.  The main focus of the psalm, though, is on God's righteous rule as king over all. 

The psalmist praises God for his wonderful works in the past (v 1) and looks forward to praising him for additional wonders in the future ( v 14).  The wicked may prosper temporarily, but there will come a time when evil will exist no longer (vv 5-6; 15-18).  

The psalmist prays for such a time to come soon (vv 19-20).  The prayer "Arise, O Lord!" echoes Moses' prayer whenever the Israelites started on a new stage of their journey:  "Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you" (Num 10:35).  The Israelites would need the kind of faith exhibited in Psalm 9 to be successful in their mission. 

Seder 110: Numbers 10:1-10---Trumpet Calls to Remembrance

 Numbers 10:1-10 tells about two silver trumpets that would be used by the Israelites both on the journey to the Promised Land and after they arrived.  

During the journey, different combinations of long and short blasts would summon the people or their leaders together and let the tribes know when to break camp.  In the Promised Land, trumpets would be used for holy wars and for celebrations.  

Num 10:9-10 imply that the blasts from these trumpets would, in a sense, be prayers, calling upon God to remember his people---i.e., to take action on their behalf.  

These silver trumpets were one of two kinds of trumpets used by the Israelites.  There were also the rams' horns, the shofarim, that were heard at Mt Sinai (Ex 19), at the beginning of a Jubilee year (Lev 25), and at Jericho (Joshua 6).  

In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on July 30, 2022, Kyle Kettering looked at trumpets in the Bible.  In addition to being calls for God to remember his people, trumpet blasts are calls for God's people to remember God and turn to him in repentance.  We must heed these calls before the final trumpet blasts that signal the return of Jesus (Matt 24:31; 1 Cor 15:50-58; 1 Thes 4:16-18; Rev 11:15).

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Seder 109: Numbers 8 and 9---Offering of the Levites, Second Passover

 Numbers 7 celebrates the large, identical gifts presented by the tribes of Israel at the dedication of the altar.  The tribe of Levi did not give one of those gifts because of its special role,  Instead it was receiving and processing those gifts.  

Moreover, the tribe of Levi itself constituted a gift to God, replacing the firstborn sons that God had saved at Passover.  They were presented to God as a "wave offering" (Num 8:11) as a kind of "living sacrifice" (think of Rom 12:1).    

Service at the tabernacle involved strenuous physical work.  A male Levite's active service extended from age 25 to age 50 (vv 24-26).  The census of Levites had counted men from ages 30-50 (Num 4:3).  Perhaps a Levite's service began with a 5-year apprenticeship.  On the other hand, the DSS and LXX have the census in Num 4:3 covering ages 25-50 years.  

Later in Israel's history, during the time of the kings, a Levite's service began at age 20 (1 Chron 23:24-27; 2 Chron 31:16-17).  By that point their duties were a little less strenuous and sensitive than they were at the tabernacle in the wilderness.

At Sinai the Israelites celebrated Passover on the anniversary of their rescue from Egypt.  Some who could not participate because of ritual uncleanness asked about the possibility of an opportunity for them to celebrate their redemption (Num 9:6-7).  Moses took the matter to God, who set up a "second Passover" for those unable to participate in the first one.  Here we see God acting as a patient and effective teacher.  

Planning was required for the celebration.  In the days of Jesus many arrived in Jerusalem early to take care of any ritual purification that would be required (John 11:55).  Of course, in the year of the crucifixion, there were some who were plotting Jesus' death, which would certainly lead to some additional "corpse uncleanness" (v 57).  

Seder 109: Psalm 119:129-136---"The Unfolding of Your Words Gives Light"

As with other sections of Psalm 119, verses 129-136 praise the commandments of God.  The psalmist shows a hunger for the wisdom of God (verse 131).  As part of the blessing promised in Num 6:24-26, he asks for God to teach him (v 135).  He sheds an "irrigation canal's worth" of tears because of the needless suffering he sees around him, suffering caused by the breaking of God's commnadments.  

There are several memorable lines in this part of Psalm 119.  In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on July 23, 2022, Kyle Kettering reflected on one of them, in verse 130a:  "The unfolding of your words gives light."  

Kyle noted that we may read some scriptural text once or more than once and not be moved by it.  He quoted Job 33:14: "For God speaks in one way, and in two, though man does not perceive it."

He pointed out that timing matters.  When the time is right, a light will go on, and God will have communicated something new and important to us.  We see a striking example in Luke 24, where the resurrected Jesus teaches his disciples, opening their eyes to the meaning of the events they have just experienced.  

Kyle suggested we investigate a biblical text and talk about it with someone.  He also urged that we keep praying about situations that we may have given up on.  When the timing is right, God's word will shed light on those situations.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Seder 108: Jeremiah 31:22---"A Woman Encircles a Man"

 There is a fascinating sentence in Jeremiah 31:22.  In the context of a prophecy about Israel's eventual  return from exile to the Promised Land, Jeremiah says, "For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth:  a woman encircles a man."

Commentators observe that the word for "created" is bara, a word used only when God is creating something with no help from anyone or anything else, as in "creation from nothing."  The word for "man", geber, refers to a mighty man.

This passage has been the source of lots of discussion---see, for example, Charles Lee Feinberg, "Jeremiah 31:22:  Proverb, Promise, or Prophecy?", Bibliotheca Sacra 123 (1966), 315-324; 124 (1967), 16-21.

One popular Christian interpretation sees this as a prophecy of the Virgin Birth.  A number of church fathers---e.g., Jerome---held this interpretation.  Certainly the miracle of the Virgin Birth is an entirely new, unprecedented creation of God, with a "mighty man" encompassed/enclosed/encircled by (the body of) a woman.  Also, it is the work of Jesus on the cross that makes the new covenant (Jer 31:31-34) possible, and there are some references to the Messiah in the previous chapter (30:9,21).  Still, this interpretation doesn't seem to fit the context of Jeremiah 31:22, even with the phrase "virgin Israel" appearing in verse 21.  

A second possibility, more in keeping with the context, has a woman (the nation of Israel) being enabled by God to overcome the power of enemy nations like Assyria and Babylon (the mighty man), surrounding or hemming in those enemies.  John Calvin proposed an interpretation along these lines.

A third possibility has God causing the woman (the nation of Israel) to embrace or cling to God and/or the Messiah (the mighty man) as never before.  This reading connects with the new covenant promise in verses 31-34.  .  

Today's commentators humbly admit that we don't know the meaning of the passage for sure. For example, Michael L. Brown (Revised Expositor's Bible Commentary) remarks, "Certainty of interpretation is highly unlikely here, given the concise nature of the Hebrew expression, and McKane’s comments that this phrase 'has been a happy hunting-ground for aspiring exegetes' should be remembered."

Seder 108: Jeremiah 31:18-34---Israel's Restoration and the New Covenant

 Chapters 30-33 of Jeremiah have been called the Book of Consolation.  At a time just before the fall of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah to the Babylonians (Jer 32:1-2) in around 586 BC , God gave Jeremiah a message of hope for the future of Israel, promising restoration for both the northern tribes of the House of Israel and the southern tribes of the House of Judah. 

The northern kingdom---symbolized by Ephraim, its leading tribe---had already fallen to Assyria in 722 BC.  The repentance of those tribes in exile is pictured in Jer 31:18-19. "You have disciplined me, and I was disciplined, like an untrained calf," Ephraim says.  The language here is reminiscent of Hosea 4:16, where Hosea declares, "Like a stubborn heifer, Israel is stubborn."  

God responds with compassion for Ephraim (Jer 31:20), expressing sentiments similar to those of Hosea 11:8-9.  "I will surely have mercy on him, declares the Lord."   

The prophecy goes on to say that God will restore both the northern and southern tribes from exile.  The promise of a new covenant with Israel and Judah comes in Jer 31:31-34.  Commentators Walter Kaiser and Tiberius Rata call this passage "the apex of biblical theology for both Testaments."  They note that while this is the only time the prophets  use the term "new covenant," the same basic promise is repeated, with varying language, in a number of prophecies:

  • "everlasting covenant"---Jer 32:40; 50:5; Isa 24:5; 55:3; 61:8; Ezek 16:60; 37:26.
  • "new heart and a new spirit"---Ezek 11:19; 18:31; 36:26; Jer 32:39 LXX.
  •  "covenant of peace"---Isa 54:10; Ezek 34:25; 37:26.
  • "a covenant" or "my covenant"---Isa 42:6; 49;8; Hos 2:18-20. 
Like the Sinai covenant, the new covenant involves God's Torah or instruction (v 33).  In terms of its content it is more a "renewed" covenant" than a "brand new" covenant.  Verses 32-34  explain how the new covenant will be different from the Sinai covenant:  many Israelites had not kept the Sinai covenant, but they universally would obey the new one, because God would write his Torah on the hearts of the people.   

This covenant is made with the house of Israel and house of Judah (v 31).  The first participants were Jesus' Jewish disciples (Luke 22:20; Acts 2), but people from all nations were soon added as "wild olive shoots" grafted into the olive tree of Israel (Rom 11:17).  

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Seder 108: Numbers 7---Tribal Gifts for Dedication of the Altar

 The first two months of the second year of the Exodus were a busy time for the Israelites.  The completion of the tabernacle and the ordination of the priests were among the major events of that period.  To dedicate the altar of burnt offering for the tabernacle, each tribe gave an identical gift, as recorded in Numbers 7.

The presentation of the gifts was carried out over a period of twelve days, with each tribe featured on a different day.  These were generous voluntary gifts that symbolized each tribe's desire to contribute.  The twelve-day celebration promoted the unity of the tribes and rejoiced that God would be accompanying them on the journey.  

The tribes took turns according to the order for marching laid out in Numbers 2.  Judah, the leading tribe, went on day 1.  Ephraim, another leading tribe, went on day 7.  The tribes were led by the representatives that had been chosen to carry out the census described in Numbers 1.

The gifts are described in twelve almost identical paragraphs, with the main differences being the name of the tribe and its representative.  In all but one case, the representatives are called princes.  The exception is the Judah paragraph, which does not call Nahshon a prince.  Tradition says this is because the real prince of the tribe of Judah is the future messianic king prophesied in Gen 49.

With the construction of the tabernacle, Moses would no longer be communing with God at a "tent of meeting" outside the camp (Exod 33;7-11).  From now on the tabernacle would double as the tent of meeting (Num 7:89).

In a sermon on this seder at Church of the Messiah on July 9, 2022, Rob Wilson highlighted the importance of God speaking with his people for the benefit of the whole community, as described in Num 7:89.

Seder 108: Psalm 21---A Messianic Royal Psalm of Thanksgiving

 Psalm 21 is a royal psalm that can be seen as a sequel to Psalm 20.  Psalm 20 is a prayer for protection and success for the king, while Psalm 21 expresses the king's gratitude for the success that God has granted him.  

Here is one example of the connections between the two psalms:

Psalm 20:4---"May he grant you your heart's desire and fulfill all your plans!

Psalm 21:2---"You have given him his heart's desire...."

Psalm 21:1-7 shows gratitude for the promises of the Davidic covenant, including

  • God's steadfast love (v.7; 2 Sam 7:15);
  • God's presence (v. 6; 2 Sam 7:9);
  • a dynasty lasting forever (vv 4, 6; 2 Sam 7:13, 16).
In verse 7 the king affirms his trust in God, rather than in horses or chariots(see 20:7).  Then in verses 8-13, the congregation affirms its faith in God's ulimate judgment of enemies and victory over all opposition.  The psalm begins and ends by praising God's strength. 

During the era of Solomon's Temple, this psalm could have been used to celebrate a victory or the anniversary of a king's coronation.  Then during the Second Temple period and beyond, it was natural to see this psalm messianically, especially with its references to eternal life and blessing (vv 4,6) and final victory.  The last half of the psalm reminds us of prophecies that the Messiah will conquer all enemies, including death (Isa 25:7-8; 1 Cor 15:54-57).

The Targum in verses 1 and 7 has "the king Messiah" for "the king,"  and the discussion of this psalm in Midrash Psalms is entirely about how the different parts of the psalm apply to the Messiah. Here are some examples of the discussion in Midrash Psalms:  

  • The Midrash connects verse 2 ("you have given him his heart's desire and have not withheld the request of his lips") with Isa 11:4 ("he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked").  
  • To explain verse 4 ("he asked life of you"), it is speculated that the Messiah asked God for the resurrection of Korah and his colleagues, who were swallowed up by the ground during Israel's years in the wilderness (Num 16). 
  • In connection with verse 6 ("you make him glad with the joy of your presence"), sages mention examples where the Messiah comes into the presence of God (Dan 7:13-14; Jer 30:21).  
Unlike some other royal psalms (45 and 110, e.g.), Psalm 21 is not referenced in the New Testament.  Some verses in Psalm 21 look like good candidates for a prosopological reading, but I am not aware of them being used in this way.  I may look into this question further.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Seder 107: Psalms 67 and 134---Psalms of Blessing

 Psalm 67 is a community prayer to the righteous and generous King of the Universe, asking for blessing for his people.  The prayer begins in verse 1 by making reference to the Aaronic blessing (Num 6:24-26), giving a reminder of the totality of God's blessings.  The pronouns in the blessing are changed from second person ("you") to first person ("us"), applying the blessing to each individual in the community.

The prayer requests blessings for missional reasons.  When God blesses his people, the nations notice God's power and goodness, which will then lead the nations to join Israel in praising God.  The prayer expresses hope for the coming of the messianic age.

Psalm 134 is a liturgical psalm, the conclusion of the psalms of ascent.  It begins with a call to worship and highlights the role of the priests and Levites.  At the tabernacle and temple they served both day and night, praising God.  

The psalm concludes with a short blessing recalling the Aaronic blessing.  God is the "maker of heaven and earth," so his blessings extend to all of life.

Seder 107: Numbers 6:22-27 and Matthew 5---the Aaronic Blessing and the Beatitudes

 God is the source of all blessings (James 1:17).  In the Bible, human representatives of God like kings (2 Sam 6:18; 1 Kings 8:14,55)  and priests (Ps 118:26; Lev 9:22) often prayed for blessings for God's people.

It was a duty of Israelite priests, in fact, to pray for blessing, and God gave them the words for such a prayer (Num 6:24-26).  The words include:

  • "The Lord bless you"---as in Lev 26:3-13; Dt 28:3-14, which picture wellbeing in all areas of life.
  • "And keep you"---protect you from things that work against this blessing, against peace and prosperity.  Such protection is described, for example, in Psalm 121.
  • "The Lord make his face to shine upon you".  This expression pictures a superior showing favor to a subject, as in Pro 16:15:  "In the light of a king's face there is life, and his favor is like the clouds that bring the spring rain."  See Ps 31:16 for another example of this expression. 
  • "And be gracious to you"---a prayer for God's mercy.
  • "The Lord lift up his countenance upon you"---the opposite of hiding one's face in anger and turning away, as in Gen 4:6.  Deut 28:50 refers to a nation sent to punish Israel as "hard-faced".
  • "And give you peace"---"peace" is shalom, which connotes prosperity, health, and wholeness.
This blessing "placed God's name" upon the Israelites.  As bearers of God's name, they were charged with representing him before the nations, a responsibility they were to carry out faithfully, as emphasized in one of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:7).

Moses embodied what it meant to receive this blessing.  When he communed with God on Mount Sinai, he experienced God's shining face.  His own face then shone, illustrating a close relationship with God (Ex 34:29-35).  Biblical theologian David H. Wenkel studies the Bible's "shining face" and "face-to-face" motifs in his book Shining Like the Sun:  A Biblical Theology of Meeting God Face to Face.  

Some of the oldest known copies of verses from the Bible are copies of the Aaronic blessing preserved on two tiny silver strips dating from around 600 BC.  These strips were found at Ketef Hinnom in 1979.

When we think about biblical blessings, we also think about the Beatitudes pronounced by Jesus in Matt 5:2-12.  The Beatitudes are not prayers like the Aaronic blessing.  Rather, they identify groups of people who have already received blessing, even if they might not seem in the world's eyes to be very fortunate.  In a sermon at Church of the Messiah on July 2, 2022, Kyle Kettering brought out the difference and expounded on the Beatitudes.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Seder 106: Numbers 6:1-21---the Nazirite Vow

 Numbers 6:1-21 describes the Nazirite vow, a way in which one could separate oneself to God at a high level of holiness for a specified period of time.  During the time of the vow, a Nazirite was to partake of no wine or grape products, was not to have a haircut, and was to have no contact with a corpse.  

These requirements have some parallels with the requirements for an Israelite high priest, who also was to have no contact with a corpse.(Lev 21:11) and was not to drink alcoholic beverages while on duty (Lev 10:9).  Both high priests and Nazirites had a special head covering.

One might undertake such a vow to express devotion or gratitude to God.  One might also promise to become a Nazirite if a certain prayer was answered.  

Any Israelite, male or female, could become a Nazirite.  For example, Queen Helene of Adiabene promised to do a 7-year vow if her son Izates, who had gone to war, returned safely.  He did, and see carried out the vow.  She is said to have continued the vow for an extra seven years (m. Nazir 3:6). 

 Another female Nazirite mentioned in the Mishna and Talmud was Miriam of Palmyra (m Nazir 6:11).

The completion of a Nazirite vow was commemorated with a series of offerings (Num 6:13-21).  There has been much discussion among Jewish commentators about why one of them was a purification offering (v 16). One suggestion is that the purification offering was for the fact that the vow was now ending.  Another is that the purification offering is for all the good things that the Nazirite could have been enjoying during the time of the vow.  In any case, the goal was for the Nazirite to return to normal life at a higher spiritual level.

Since the offerings were expensive, it was considered to be a mitzvah to help a Nazirite finance them.  Paul once acted in this capacity (Acts 21:17-26) and also carried out a vow of his own (Acts 18:18).  These are some of the data supporting the assertion that Paul remained Torah observant after he was called as an apostle.

Seder 117: Numbers 20---Moses' Meltdown

 Numbers 20:1 reports the death of Miriam "in the first month."  The year is generally assumed to be the fortieth and final year o...