Monday, November 11, 2013

Numbers 14:1–25

As mentioned in Year D (p. 69), this text shows strong connections to Hebrews 3:1–19, the epistle reading for the Second Sunday of Advent; so suggesting it for the Fourth Sunday of Advent may seem a missed opportunity. Furthermore, reading it after Joshua 23, which is assigned to the Third Sunday of Advent, not only disrupts the continuity of chronological progression, it hearkens back some two generations to the rebellion of Israel that delayed the conquest by forty years. Nevertheless, the incident is essential for explaining the "forty years in the wilderness," a monolithic literary theme in and of itself, and it towers behind so many other of our Advent texts that its inclusion seems obligatory, and perhaps even urgent. For the statistics alone are astonishing: only two faithful ones, out of a nation of over six hundred thousand, are allowed to enter the land. Not that we should read anything paradigmatic or normative into those odds, but they certainly serve to set those who trust in God apart from the unfaithful complaining rabble.

(vv. 1–4). The text begins with the "loud cry" of the congregation at the negative and cowardly report of the twelve spies, or rather, of the ten of the twelve who carried the day. Their dismay is such that they suspect and accuse the LORD, who has provided for them all along, of "bringing us into this land to fall by the sword" (v. 3). They not only refuse to go forward, but they say they would rather return to Egypt (vv. 3–4). Their optative outburst will have terrible prophetic consequences: "Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in the wilderness!" (v. 2) The eventual fulfillment of that second option exemplifies what Old Testament scholars identify as the reality-forming power of speech.

(vv. 5–10). The response of Moses and Aaron is to fall on their faces before all the assembly," but we can be sure this posture was not intended as submission to the people; on the contrary, it is a desperate plea for the LORD to guide, direct, and intervene. In the face of Korah's rebellion, Moses will shortly do the same thing, and will arise with a clear word from the LORD (16:4–11). Here, however, before the glory of the LORD appears "to all the Israelites" (v. 10b) and speaks to Moses (vv. 11–12), the two loyal spies tear their garments as a sign of dismay, frustration, grief, and (perhaps vicarious) repentance (i.e., it is the people, rather than these two, who should repent), and they state the case for seizing the moment to seize the land: it is "an exceedingly good land ... that flows with milk and honey" (vv. 7–8); its inhabitants, they say, "are no more than bread for us" (v. 9)—an admittedly strange expression, not suggesting cannibalism, but simply reversing the giants–to–grasshoppers comparison made by the cowardly spies (13:31–33) in which the Israelites came up short compared to the Nephilim and the Anakim. All such comparisons aside, Joshua and Caleb insist that, "their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them." God with us: such is the all important and determining distinction. Yet they also make it clear that this guarantee is not absolute, but relative and conditional, and the Israelites are at risk of squandering this (literally, once-in-a-lifetime) opportunity, for they frame it in these terms: "If the LORD is pleased with us, he will bring us into the land and give it to us ... Only, do not rebel against the LORD, and do not fear the people of the land ..." (v. 8–9a).

We should not overlook the strong connection here between fear of human enemies and rebellion against the LORD, or conversely, between trust in the LORD and courage in the face of one's enemies. Yet, sadly, what boldness the Israelities have was entirely misdirected on this occasion; they "threatened to stone" Joshua and Caleb, until "the glory of the LORD appeared at the tent of meeting" (v. 10).

(vv. 11–12). When the LORD speaks, it is by no means the word of an unmoved mover that we read. On the contrary, he seems to have taken the rebellion very personally: "How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?" In our comments on Joshua 23, we noted how the LORD is not above earning (and claiming to have earned) human love and loyalty, and here it is clear that he has done more than enough to earn Israel's trust as well.

To refuse to trust or believe may seem a far cry from despising, but here the two verbs are drawn together synonymously, while the LORD's reminder of his miraculous signs suggests forgetfulness, senselessness, and ingratitude on the part of Israel. Whether the LORD is really ready to wash his hands of them, or whether he is simply testing Moses is not clear, but his first reaction is to start all over with Moses alone: "I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they" (v. 12). It is hard to escape the "tempting" ring of this proposal, which is not something we normally associate with God (by contrast, see Luke 4:1–13). The LORD certainly does perform tests in the Torah from time to time in order to see what is in the human heart (Genesis 22:1; Deuteronomy 8:2; et al.); yet one thing we have learned from recent Old Testament scholarship is not to take it upon ourselves to protect the immutability of God, which only serves to short-circuit the revelatory and dramatic potential of the text. The LORD is a fully-orbed character here, his "glory" is very human (so to speak), that is, expressing human emotion, and though he doubtless has the power to obliterate Israel in his scorned fury, he is nevertheless resolved to maintain some continuity in his plan, work through Moses, and even consult with him.

(vv. 13–19). To the extent this is a test, Moses passes it with flying colors. There is no long, considered silence reported, no dream sequence to reveal any delusion of grandeur or any ambition whatsoever. Moses simply reasons with the LORD, supplying the consequential "then" to match the LORD's proposal, which does not even bear the tentative ring of a hypothetical "if." Moses, in fact, restrains the LORD, if we may put it that way, by recasting the LORD's resolute "I will" in terms of little more than a suggestion.

Even more notable is the leverage he uses for his reasoning: The LORD's reputation (or glory) among the other nations. These nations, from Egypt to the nations that occupy the land he has sworn to give to Israel, already know of the LORD's power and might through his deeds in delivering Israel from slavery; they already know he is present with and leading Israel (vv. 13–14). If Yahweh were to "kill this people all at one time"—the phrase will become important for what will shortly unfold—"then the nations ... will say" that the mighty LORD "was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give" to Israel (vv. 15–16).

At this juncture, what is at stake is the LORD's glorious reputation among the nations as a mighty and powerful God. But Moses himself reminds the LORD of what the LORD had earlier revealed of his particular and peculiar power. Whatever the LORD finally determines to do, he must not simply protect and vindicate his reputation for power, as though power were a matter of sheer brute force; rather, LORD's power is the power to redeem. Moses says, "let the power of the LORD be great in the way that you promised when you spoke, saying,
'The LORD is slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love,
forgiving iniquity and transgression,
but by no means clearing the guilty,
visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
to the third and the fourth generation'" (v. 18).
In other words, Moses pleads with the LORD to reveal his power, not in scorned retribution, but in forgiveness and steadfast love, in granting pardon in a way that continues his consistently merciful dealings with Israel (v.19).

(vv. 20–25). The LORD's dilemma, of course, is that rebellion must not be without consequence; he must not allow the people to enter the land with the impression that their disobedience and even their despising of the LORD will be met with impunity, for that would only encourage such disdain for the LORD and his covenant, and would only hasten the people's forgetfulness of his gracious, loving, and merciful deliverance. Therefore, he must find a way to fulfill his promise, show the nations his ability to do so, and do so mercifully, thereby revealing his continued patience and forgiveness: "I do forgive ... ; nevertheless, ..." there shall be consequences for the rebellious generation.

Before the consequences are uttered, however, the LORD's mission is declared, even sworn anew as an oath to himself that surpasses even his sworn oath to bring Israel into the land: "as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD ..." (v. 21). This absolute teleological aim is taken as the indubitatum presuppositione on which the LORD swears that "none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness ... shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it" (vv. 22–23).

Caleb alone is singled out for his "different spirit" and for following the LORD "wholeheartedly," as a result of which "his (Caleb's) descendants shall possess the land" (v. 24). While the broader narrative makes clear that Joshua is also exceptional, here Caleb's wholehearted obedience is contrasted with those who, the LORD says, "tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice" (v. 22). Caleb's name, which means "loyal" or "loyal dog," on one level conveys his part-Gentile heritage as the "son of Jephunneh the Kennizite" (32:12), hence, the canine designation, while at the root level Ca-leb means literally "all heart." Such is the quality, the "different spirit," that the LORD will command (Deuteronomy 6:4–5) of the new generation that will arise and cross over into the promised land; such is the character of loyal love that will constitute the substance of the Shema, which in turn will shape the very nature of Jewish identity and consciousness, and be proclaimed anew by Jesus as that to which his disciples must aspire.

It is difficult to overstate the exceptional character of Caleb's wholehearted, singleminded faith, but since our Advent texts warn of creating false comparisons with the coming Son of God, perhaps we will do best to recall and associate him with the Roman (Gentile) centurion whose faith surpassed that of anyone in Israel and astounded even Jesus himself (Luke 7:1-10). There are such persons "whom Christ commended" (to borrow the title of a book by Ralph W. Sockman). They are not Christ, but they are examples—in him— who glorify the LORD, and who—even more astounding—by doing so, share his glory.


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