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“Come into my heart, Lord Jesus”
Numbers 35: Don’t desecrate the land in which you live. I live here too….
I’ve now worked my way through the “numbers” of the book of Numbers. Numbers of people and cattle and cities; who lives where and how many days between various worship events. It isn’t exactly riveting reading. In fact, it would have been easy to miss the pure gold at the end of chapter 35. The issue here is how the people are to deal with murder. Due to the fact that the laws God gives the Israelites are foundational to our own legal system it seems to be pretty common stuff. Actually though, it’s groundbreaking material, reshaping human society. God insists on justice, and adds that if society takes murder lightly the whole land will be polluted. Then he adds, “don’t desecrate the land where you live — after all, I live here too.” In spite of the dreary subject, this is a wonderful phrase of hope. Their Creator, the Sovereign of the Universe, God Almighty says his address is on their street. These days, because of the Gift of the Holy Spirit, things are even more personal. God lives, not just “in the land” but “in my heart.” If God’s presence in the land emphasized the importance of purity there, how much more does his presence in my life call for purity of heart?
Take Away: It’s a wonderful blessing to have the Lord call our lives “home” – at the same time it carries with it a real sense of responsibility.
Purifying the land
Numbers 33: Everyone you let stay there will become a cinder in your eye and a splinter in your foot.
In preparation for entering the Promised Land the Lord gives Moses instructions on how to divide the land between the tribes. He also tells Moses that the current inhabitants are to be driven out. No one currently living there is to remain. One way or another, they have to go. If the people of Israel fail in this mission the Canaanites will become thorns in their sides; the source of downfall and destruction. I wonder if the spiritual failures I sometimes see in people’s lives parallel this. The Lord calls me to full surrender to himself. I’m to give him my past, present, and future placing it all in his hands. My habits and wants, my plans and dreams must be handed over to the Lord. As long as I hold things in reserve, I haven’t yet purified the “Canaan” of my heart. If I keep some things locked away in some dark corner of my life the day will come when they will become a “cinder” in my eye and a “splinter” in my foot. The old hymn of invitation that’s actually a prayer beautifully speaks to this: “All to Jesus I surrender, I surrender all.”
Take Away: I surrender my all and in return, the Lord fills me with himself – it’s a very good deal for me.
Settling for God’s second best
Numbers 32: Don’t make us go across the Jordan
After the failure of the Israelites to cross into Canaan the Lord gives them temporary possession of the land to the east. They defeat the inhabitants and take over their territory. Now, it’s time for the next generation to make preparations for the campaign to take Canaan. Two of the tribes come to Moses requesting that they be allowed to forfeit their portion of the Promised Land and settle right where they are. Moses is livid. He sees this as the prelude of another failure on the part of the Israelites to obey the Lord and to move forward to the land they were promised long ago. The people of Ruben and Gad respond that they’ll join the fight and help their fellow Israelites take the land but that they’ll be happy with right where they are. Moses agrees but warns them that they’ll have to keep their part of the bargain. As good as that land east of Canaan might have been, I think Ruben and Gad made a huge error. They settled for “almost Canaan” instead of Canaan, itself. No matter how good that area was it wasn’t what the Lord had for them. It was good, but it wasn’t the best. This kind of compromise is always a temptation for us. We shouldn’t let so called human wisdom serve as a substitute to God’s call and promise on our lives.
Take Away: Don’t settle for merely good when the Lord offers us the very best.
Numbers 29: Celebrate a Festival to God for seven days.
Sometimes I have the impression that the Law is all about “don’t do this” and “don’t do that.” While I understand that there are plenty of rules like that it’s good to be reminded that the Lord specifically orders his people to take days and even weeks off from work and during those times to celebrate all he’s doing for them. I’ve just read two whole chapters about such events. There’s the weekly Sabbath plus several annual celebrations. These festivals always include making sacrifices that the Lord gives back to the people. In other words, a lamb is given as a sacrifice, but part of it is given back to the one making the sacrifice. In this, we see the Lord joining them in the celebration! I think this is very neat! God says, “Okay, I have another rule for you: on the first day of the seventh month each year, take a vacation, bring offerings to the Temple and let’s enjoy one another’s company for a week.” This is an element of my relationship with the Lord that I need to remember. Serving the Lord isn’t all “dos and don’ts.” He’s good to me and he invites me to take time away from everyday life to celebrate that goodness.
Take Away: Followers of the Lord have good reason to celebrate.
Transition of leadership
Numbers 27: Set a man over this community to lead them.
The twenty-seventh chapter of Numbers feels a bit out of place. After it we get back to the details of the law and descriptions of battles fought by the Israelites on their wilderness journey. This chapter, though, is about dividing up the land once they arrive in Canaan and here in this passage we read of the mantle of leadership being passed from Moses to Joshua. This doesn’t diminish the story any, but it’s interesting that it feels as though we’re peeking ahead a bit. The Lord tells Aaron and Moses that the sun is setting on their lives. Because of their behavior at Meribeth they won’t enter into the Promised Land. The primary concern of Moses at this point is not that he’ll not set foot in Canaan but is rather that a new leader will have to be chosen. The natural selection for this job is the one the Lord makes. Joshua, an assistant of Moses will take up the responsibility of, and be granted the gifts for, leadership. A new generation will possess Canaan and their leader will be from that generation. This transition of power is one of the things that work right for the people of Israel. There’s no stubborn holding on by Moses (something I’m impressed with, considering he’s been in charge for forty years) and there’s no coop from Joshua. The people accept the change without dividing up into the “Moses did it better” and the “Joshua’s our guy” camps. I’m convinced that this is how things are supposed to work in the Kingdom of God. I also understand that it’s harder than it looks. It takes careful, intentional, grace-filled effort for one leader to step down and another to step up. When it works, as it does in this passage, it’s a beautiful thing.
Take Away: During times of transition we need a double portion of God’s grace.
Numbers 27: Give us an inheritance among our father’s relatives.
In preparation for entry into the Promised Land a census has been taken and the method for division of the land is made public. A group of sisters, all daughters of the late Zelophehad appear before Moses to seek justice. The division of land is by families and it’s sons who are to inherit from their fathers. These women explain that their father died without any sons and because of that his descendants are being left out of the plans for property ownership in Canaan. Moses takes the issue to the Lord and the Lord agrees. The plan is rewritten to take into account men who die with no sons to inherit their property. This is a historical decision that elevates the status of women in Israel. I find the circumstances quite interesting. What would have happened had these women not come forward with their petition? My guess is that their unique situation would have been overlooked. As individuals, they would have been okay because when they married they would have shared in their husband’s inheritance. Because of their bold request, though, the Lord listened, agreed, and responded. This then, becomes an example of prayer having a direct influence on the Lord. He willingly listens to us and allows us to have influence in what he does in this world. Had they not stepped forward things would have been okay; but because they did, things happened as they desired. To think that the Almighty welcomes my petitions, considers them, and is willing to respond to them amazes me. This is quite a powerful lesson to find buried here between the report of the census and more instructions concerning burnt offerings in the book of Numbers!
Take Away: As surprising as it is, the Lord welcomes my petitions and is willing to consider them and to grant them.
What God intended in the first place
Numbers 23: How can I curse whom God has not cursed?
Balaam is hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites. After the talking donkey incident, Balaam has had a change of heart. After all, part of that unusual event is that he saw the angel of the Lord with sword in hand blocking his way. Now as he arrives, Balak urges him to go ahead and curse the Israelites. Balaam agrees to do his thing, but warns Balak that he can only say what the Lord allows him to say. He enters into his “prophetic trance” and the words that come out of his mouth are a disappointment to Balak. Right off it’s plain that the pitiful prophet, who’s toying with stuff he would be better off leaving alone, isn’t going to do a very good job of cursing God’s people. Instead, Balaam hears himself blessing them. This whole blessing and cursing stuff is off the mark anyway. God’s people don’t believe in spells and magic. Rather, we believe in God. In this case the Lord used Balaam’s hocus pocus for his own purposes, but remember this: God already intends to bless Israel. That’s what he’s been saying all along. Even if Balak’s plan had worked and Balaam managed to state a mysterious, mystic curse on Israel it would have just been a lot of hot air. Beyond that, Balaam’s blessing doesn’t actually mean anything either. God didn’t hear this silly prophet state a blessing and think he had to obey. The Lord continued to do what he intended to do all along.
Take Away: The Lord is sovereign and all the hocus pocus in the world isn’t going to force him to do anything.
God’s second best
Numbers 21: Israel moved in and lived in Amorite country.
For some reason I’ve always imagined the ancient Israelites just wandering around in the wilderness for forty years. Apparently, it wasn’t quite like that. As they prepare to enter the territory ruled by King Sihon Moses sends representatives to negotiate safe passage through the territory. He promises that he and his people will only pass through and won’t take anything that isn’t theirs. However, Sihon sees them as easy prey and orders his army to attack them. Israel fights back and not only defends itself but takes possession of the territory ruled by Sihon. Later on they also defeat Og’s forces and take his territory too. They haven’t arrived in Canaan but now they have a base of operations. In spite of their massive failure to occupy Canaan the Lord has provided them with temporary housing. The other stories of battles and other conflicts all orbit around this territory which is east of the Dead Sea and of Canaan. For this generation, this is as good as it gets. They could have been taking the Promised Land, securing a future for their children but instead they’re in a “holding pattern” just shy of their goal. On one hand, I’m moved by the grace of God. In spite of their failure the Lord continues to care for them. On the other hand, it’s disappointing that they came so close yet failed to take possession of Canaan. (Even to the point of fighting Og who is described in Deuteronomy as one of the giants of Canaan). As I see the Israelites busying themselves with moving into their temporary housing I can’t help but wonder how often I’ve accepted God’s second best for me. There’s a lot of grace in this passage, but things aren’t what they might have been.
Take Away: God’s people never need settle for second best when it comes to God’s provision.
Numbers 21: Anyone bitten by a snake who then looked at the copper snake lived.
Have you ever been snake bit? I am very happy to report that I am not in that number. Two groups of people have great snake stories: missionaries and plumbers. Missionaries have them because of their journeys and plumbers have them because they crawl under houses in places where snakes like to live. I seriously doubt that either group says that encountering snakes is a highlight of their profession. In this Scripture passage the people anger God by being irritable in spite of his many blessings on them. In his anger, he sends poisonous snakes that bite people: a death sentence. Now, there are all kinds of concerns here about our Heavenly Father doing this, and, while I think it’s worthy of consideration, something bigger comes to mind. You see, spiritually speaking I have been snake bit. The result is that I’ve been poisoned by sin and the result of that poison is death. The remedy for the ancient Israelites is the bronze snake on a pole. When they look up they find healing — wholeness. My hope is found when I look to another “pole” — that is, the cross of Jesus. In him I find, not death, but life.
Take Away: Look up to the cross – and live!