Exclusively published to the Touchstone website each week, these Daily Reflections are brief commentaries on the lectionary readings contained in the St. James Daily Devotional Guide. The reflections are penned by Patrick Henry Reardon, editor of the Daily Devotional Guide and a senior editor of Touchstone. Father Reardon provides here a very brief directional clue for one of the texts each day. Long-time readers of the Daily Devotional Guide will find these reflections an additional help to their reading of Holy Scripture which they can print and keep with their Guide.
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Sunday, July 10
Numbers 10: After celebrating its second Passover there, and having received guidance by the movement of the pillar of cloud and fire, Israel prepared to leave Mount Sinai. Before making its departure, nonetheless, the Chosen People received one more directive—to fashion two silver trumpets, to be sounded whenever the whole camp was to receive specific instructions relative to its march (verses 1-2).
These two trumpets were also to be sounded for general assemblies (verse 3), as well as special meetings of the elders (verse 4). In short, all manner of directions could be conveyed by the various blasts and blowing of the trumpet. These included military directions (verse 9) and liturgical use (verse 10).
The trumpeters were the priests (verse 8).
In its march, Israel began with the tribe of Judah, situated on the east side of the camp (verses 5,14), and so on.
Thus signaled to leave, Israel departed from Mount Sinai nearly a year after arriving there (verses 11-12). The Chosen People moved to Paran, a desert region south and southeast of Kadesh, and there movement thereto (verses 13-28) generally followed the pattern outlined in Numbers 2.
Since the Midianite in-laws of Moses were more familiar with the desert, Moses pleaded with them to remain in the company of Israel (verses 29-32). From the reference in Judges 1:16, it appears that they acceded to Moses’ request.
This chapter closes with the acclamations of Moses whenever the Ark was lifted for the march and set down again at the end of it (verses 33-36). These acclamations were later adapted and modified for Israel’s liturgical processions (cf. Psalms 68 (69):1; 132 (131):8).
Monday, July 11
Numbers 11: It would appear that some of the Israelites, having spent the previous eleven months encamped in the desert at the foot of Mount Sinai, were ready for a change of scenery when the time came to move. When, at the end of the previous chapter, they found themselves at Paran, a place arguably bleaker than where they had been before, these hopes were dashed. The ensuing “murmuring” that forced itself on the ears of both the Lord and Moses provides the context for the narrative in the present chapter.
This English word “murmur,” the mere pronunciation of which forces the mouth and throat to imitate the very sound of the thing, signifies a hopeless, powerless discontent that we correctly associate with the selfishness of childhood. It is an extension of a baby’s indistinct cry for the relief of its undefined needs, but it does contain one further element beyond the cry of the infant. It conveys a general note of blame. The murmurer is not only complaining; he is implicitly blaming somebody for his discontent.
Thus, murmuring is the most distressing of sounds. Even God cannot endure it (verse 1), and His burning wrath, earlier experienced by the Egyptians, is now felt by Israel. Only the prayer of Moses, once again acting as Israel’s intercessor, was able to spare the Chosen People (verses 2-3).
The people’s complaint, which brings forth the two responses that hold our chapter together, had to do with their unvarying diet of manna, the miraculous food that had sustained them at every meal, everyday, for a full eleven months. Some of the folks hankered after a more varied fare (verse 5).
The Lord’s response was twofold.
First, this crisis made it clear that Moses needed extra help in the governance of Israel. He was beginning to feel burnout. As the people complained to Moses, Moses complained to God, asking if the Lord had somehow made him the father of all these people. Translated more literally, verse 12 should read, “Was it I that . . .? (he’anoki).” It is instructive that Moses refers to the Israelites here as children, because murmuring is, in fact, an immature response to a problem.
In response to Moses’ complaint, the Lord instructs him to choose seventy mature men to help him deal with the immature Israelites (verses 16-17). These men would receive the special gift of prophetic leadership by the grace of the Holy Spirit (verses 24-25), thus joining that group of charismatic leaders that will, in due course, be called the “Judges.” We observe that the grace of their calling was conferred even on two chosen men who had failed to be present as directed (verses 26-30).
Second, in response to Israel’s complaint about their excessively bland diet, the Lord sent another flock of quail, enough to feed them for a month. The phenomenon portrayed in verse 31 is not unknown even today, when thousands of quail, flying south from Europe to the warmer climate of Africa, fall exhausted in the desert, wearied from their crossing of the Mediterranean Sea.
Tuesday, July 12
Numbers 12: Besides unbearable, murmuring is also contagious. After a year or so in the desert, Israel’s psychological state was already becoming critical.
The problem for Moses this time is more domestic. His brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, conceived a dislike for their African sister-in-law, Zipporah the Midianite (verse 1), and they vented their displeasure on Moses himself.
It is interesting to speculate on the source of the problem. For example, we know that Moses was very much under the counsel of Reul (or Hobab), his father-in-law and the father of Zipporah, and perhaps jealousies arose in that respect. Whatever the initial point of contention, however, it is clear that the grievance of Aaron and Miriam was directed at Moses himself.
Specifically the two began to wonder our loud whether they weren’t at least as important as Moses himself (verse 2). Aaron, after all, not Moses, was the high priest, and Miriam was a recognized prophetess (Exodus 20:15), so why should Moses have all the authority?
Moses, being a meek man (verse 3; Exodus 3:11; 4:10-13), was disposed to overlook the affront, but the Lord was not. For the pair of complainers He had a thing or two to say relative to the special position and authority of Moses as the chosen intimate of the divine counsels (verses 6-8).
Miriam, in addition, was struck with leprosy, which perhaps suggests that she had been the original instigator of the problem (verse 10). From this affliction she was delivered through the intercession of Moses (verses 13-15).
This entire scene—in which the Lord vindicates His righteous servant, putting to confusion those who unjustly blame him, and restoring the accusers themselves through the intercession of the righteous man—puts the reader in mind of the very similar story in the Book of Job.
Wednesday, July 13
Numbers 13: Having advanced in the direction of the Promised Land, Israel is now ready to inspect that area and assess its prospects. Such reconnoitering is essentially a military exercise, to determine the strengths, assets, and positions of those forces that an invading army must face (verses 18-19). As in so many examples of martial reconnoitering, however, Israel’s spies returned with a great deal of information beyond that of purely military interest (verse 20). (One recalls that Alexander the Great took with him, on his vast expedition to the east, a large retinue of botanists, zoologists, cartologists, and other scientists, so that none of his acquired information would be lost to posterity.)
This list of the twelve spies, one from each tribe (verses 4-15), calls them nasi’im, but the word as used here does not, as in earlier chapters, mean the ruling heads of the tribes. On the contrary, these are younger, more agile men with skills specific to their purpose.
These skills did not, alas, include godly wisdom in any great measure, and because of the unsound counsel given by this group, the list of their names is not exactly one of honor. The two exceptions are Joshua of Ephraim and Caleb of Judah.
Going out during the summer grape harvest (verse 20), the spies went over the desert of Zin, southwest of the Dead Sea. They traveled all the way north to the Beqa’ Valley in the region of Phoenicia (verse 21). Along that way, they came to Hebron, some twenty miles south of Jerusalem (verse22). The author refers to the construction of this ancient city in the late 18th century BC.
Part of this espionage report consisted of the impressive grapes and other fruits representative of the land’s notable fertility (verses 23-27). This part of their report was very positive.
The spies’ assessment of the military situation, nonetheless, was downright dismal. They referred to the gigantic Anakim whom history had long associated with the place and who had created considerable problems even for Egypt at an earlier period (verse 28). They also listed other peoples who would resist invasion (verse 29), thoroughly discouraging the Israelites from attempting it (verses 31-33; Deuteronomy 2:11,20; 3:11 1 Samuel 17:11).
The obvious exaggerations about the physical size of the Canaanites undoubtedly came from the height of their walled cities, which the spies could only imagine as having been constructed by giants. Modern archeology has shown that some of these city walls were, in fact, up to fifty feet high and fifteen feet thick, posing obstacles that would be formidable to an untrained force inexperienced in siege works. (The presumption that high walls mean tall inhabitants was also made by the Greeks, referring to the walls of the Cyclops.)
The only bright spot was the minority report of Caleb (verse 30).
Thursday, July 14
Numbers 14: The theme o f rebellion continues. Starting with the murmuring in chapter 11 and the defiance of Aaron and Miriam in chapter 12, rebellion now reaches a definitive high point in the present chapter, when the Israelites determine to be guided by the “majority report” of the spies in chapter 12. They vote not to enter the Holy Land!
We recall that Israel undertook their flight from Egypt, not for the purpose of wandering in the wilderness, but in order to migrate to the Land of Promise. In this refusal to enter the Promised Land, therefore, the Israelites were thwarting the intent of the Exodus itself.
Their big mistake, of course, was to vote on the matter. When the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt, He gave no directives respecting a popular vote. The Exodus He did not intend to be an exercise in democratic government. The Lord cares no more for rule by majority vote than he does for any other expression of sinful disobedience..
The rebellion in the present chapter, therefore, is decisive. It marks Israel’s major and definitive apostasy. Israel’s entire current generation of adults, save on Joshua and Caleb (verses 6,24,30), will never see the Promised Land. They will all die and be interred in the desert. Indeed, only the intercession of Moses restrains the Lord from destroying all of them immediately and on the spot (verses 111-20).
The gravity of the offense here is linked to Israel’s experience of God’s power up till now. If, after so many “signs,” so many manifestations of His might and His mercy, Israel still remains unbelieving, then the offense is simply too much, and a chance for repentance is denied (verses 11,22-23,40-45; Hebrews 6:3-6).
Up to this point Israel has marched with a purpose. No more. From now on they will simply march, wandering aimlessly in the wilderness until death has blamed its proper and appointed toll (verses 29,35,38). This will require forty years, until the entire current generation has perished (verse 33).
The ten men responsible for the espionage “majority report” die immediately (verses 36-37).
Friday, July 15
Numbers 15: More legislation relative to sacrifice interrupts the narrative flow of Numbers once again. Since the rules in this chapter seem applicable only to those who will actually live in the Holy Land (verse 2), and since the previous chapter made it clear that none of the current generation will do so, this comment places an irony in the context of the material.
Perhaps the following consideration may explain and warrant this irony: After the stern condemnation at the end of the previous chapter, especially its declaration that none of the living adults would enter the Promise Land, there was some danger that the Promised Land would be forgotten altogether. Since no living adult would ever see it, why should they even think about it? At this point, however, the serene voice of God announces, “When you come into the land . . . which I will give you . . .” That is to say, the Promised Land still lies infallibly in your future.
Indeed, this sustained promise of the Land, a promise now applicable solely to Israel's next generation, must have instructed the Israelites to think more seriously about that rising generation. It would discourage them from indulging the “right now” aspect of their behavior and their expectations. The nature of the promise, that is to say, would have a “maturing” effect on their minds.
The laws given here contain material on animal sacrifice, grain sacrifice, and the libation of wine (verses 3-21). These regulations are complementary to the material in Leviticus 1-3.
This chapter clearly distinguishes between sins of ignorance and inadvertence, for which atonement is readily made (verses 22-29), and deliberate sins of malice (verses 30-31). This distinction is followed by an example that illustrates what is meant by a deliberate sin (verses 32-36).
The wearing of special tassels and ribbons on the clothing served to remind the Israelites of God's Law (verses 38-40; Matthew 9:20). It would seem that God's People always need tangible, visible reminders of their duty.
Saturday, July 16
Numbers 16: Because of the several recent crises, including God's judgment that no adults then alive would enter the Promised Land, it is perhaps not surprising that there is ongoing ill will and dissent among the Israelites, the sorts of feelings spawned by despair.
The present chapter records two rebellions combined into a single narrative, a combination perhaps caused by their happening close together. (This is often the case in the history of rebellions.) Close attention to the text, however, permits the reader to distinguish between them.
The rebellion of Korah, a Levite (chiefly verses 1-11,16-24,27,35-43; Jude 11), was apparently directed against Aaron (verses 9-11) and involved the demand that the privileges of the priesthood be extended to all the sons of Levi. The rebellion of the Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram (1,12-15,25-34), appears to have been aimed more directly at the leadership of Moses.
Both of these rebellions were spawned of a democratic, leveling impulse, impatient of hierarchical authority derived directly from God. This is clearest in the remarks of Korah, who appealed explicitly to “the priesthood of all believers” (Exodus 19:6) as a political principle to deny the ranking authority of the Aaronic priesthood: “You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?"
To Korah and the rebellious Levites Moses proposes a trial by ordeal, as it were (verses 5-7,16-18), which proved a disaster for the rebels (verse 35). Indeed, the censers used by these rebellious Levites were beaten into a bonze memorial, to warn whoever in the future might be tempted to pursue their example (verses 36-43).
Such a warning was needed, even if it has not always been heeded. The Christian Church has often been afflicted with such democratizing rebellions against priestly authority. A rather early example occurred in the church at Corinth toward the end of the first century, when the local congregation arose and attempted to depose the ministers that the Apostles had set over them. The congregation was addressed by Clement, the third bishop of Rome, in a letter that the early Christians were careful to preserve. It reads, in part: “Surely it is well for a man to confess his sins rather than harden his heart as the hearts of those who were hardened who rebelled against Moses the servant of God. Their condemnation was made plain. For they went down to Hell alive, and death was their shepherd” (Clement of Rome, To the Corinthians 51.3-4).
However it may have been related to the rebellion of Korah, the insurrection of the Reubenites seems to have been of a somewhat different complexion. Dathan and Abiram appreciated the gravity of their plight. They fully realized that they were already doomed, in fact, to perish in the wilderness. In spite of Moses' earlier pledge to take them all to the Promised Land, it was now clear that they would all die in the desert (verses 12-14). Their rebellion, on the other hand, far from removing their doom, only rendered it immediate (verses 23-34). In this sense, there was something suicidal about it.
This chapter is the only place in Holy Scripture where a sacrifice is said to assuage the “wrath of the Lord.” Indeed, this is the kind of language that the Bible tends strictly to avoid. It often speaks of God's wrath, and it frequently prescribes the offering of sacrifice, but the Bible uses great restraint to keep the two things separate, lest it ever be thought that the offering of sacrifice has something to do with appeasing the anger of God. This is, most emphatically, NOT a biblical idea. It is very significant, therefore, that in the present text, what “atones” the anger of God is not the shedding of sacrificial blood, but an offering of incense, which is a symbol of prayer (verses 44-50).
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