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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.

The Daily Reflections will be updated weekly.

Please report any problems with Daily Reflections here.


Sunday, July 17

Numbers 17: This short chapter covers the aftermath of the recent twofold revolt. The ordeal and miracle of the twelve rods was to determine, in as clear a way as possible, exactly where the authority in Israel was to be recognized. In short there was to be No More Murmuring (verses 5,10)!

The Hebrew word for rod in this chapter is matteh, which in fact means both “staff” and “tribe.” On the rod of Aaron was to be inscribed the name of Aaron himself (verse 3). Aaron's is, of course, had the advantage of experience, if the expression be allowed. That is to say, we readers already know the sorts of things that Aaron's rod can do, such as turn into a snake and eat up the other rods (Exodus 7:9-15). We are not surprised by the outcome of the ordeal. The other rods in this story never stood a chance.

The overnight blossoming of an almond tress was not uncommon, and in fact Jeremiah (1:12) would later take it as symbolic of the swiftness of the divine judgment. The miracle in this chapter, of course, is that we are not talking about an almond tree, but a dead piece of wood. Anyway, the miracle produced in the Israelites a sudden change of attitude (verses 12-13).

At least at some periods of Israel's history, Aaron's rod was preserved inside of the Ark of the Covenant itself (Hebrews 9:4). As it does in the present chapter, and as the bronze plates do in the previous chapter, the rod would remind future generations of Israelites of the limits of God's tolerance about challenges to the authority of the altar and those who served thereat.

Now that the primacy of Aaron's household has been established so clearly, the next chapter will contain more rules for the Aaronic priesthood.

Monday, July 18

Numbers 18: God does not often address Aaron directly. Only here (verses 1,20) and Leviticus 10:8.

The instructions given in this chapter begin with the solemn charge to Aaron and his sons regarding their full responsibility for the sanctuary, the priesthood, and the worship (verses 2-8). These instructions answer the question about approaching the holy things, the question raised in the final verse of the previous chapter. The answer is perfectly clear here (verse 22).

Worship in the Bible is never really “safe.” The atmosphere of the Burning Bush tends to prevail, and biblical history records later incidents in which a needed reminder was given on the point (for instance 2 Samuel 6:6-7).

Of the various offerings reserved to the priestly family, some could be eaten by all ritually pure members of the family (verses 11-13), while some were reserved to the male members of the family (verses 9-10)

The metaphor “covenant of salt” (berith melah-verse 19) perhaps invokes the preservative qualities of salt, implying that the covenant is perpetual.

As all Israel was obliged to tithe to the tribe of Levi, the latter was to tithe to the Aaronic family (verses 26-28).

Tuesday, July 19

Numbers 19: This chapter is divided between the Rite of the Red Heifer and a set of prescriptions covering ritual purification.

The first is a curious ritual in which someone, not the priest, slays a spotless heifer that has never been yoked (verses 2-3), the priest sprinkling her blood in prescribed places in the Tabernacle. The heifer is then burned, again not by the priest.

All of those associated with this ritual must then be purified (verses 7-10), and because of this impurity the task is not given to Aaron, who must in no wise incur impurity, but his son Eleazar.

The ashes of the heifer are then preserved ina safe place in order to be added later to the lustral water used for purification (verse 9).

It is not clear how this strange ritual was fitted into Israel's sacrificial system, and it sits here in Numbers without connection to the rest of that system. There is a brief reference to rite in Hebrews 9:13, where it is mentioned solely to contrast it with the redemptive efficacy of the Blood of Christ.

Other Christians, even from earliest times, have explored the symbolic possibilities of the Red Heifer. The earliest extant of these, an anonymous writer who assumed the name of St. Barnabas, compared the Red Heifer to the red cord hung from the window of Rahab at Jericho and the scarlet wool used by the High Priest. He wrote: “And what do you suppose is the type involved here, in that He ordered Israel those men in whom sins are rendered perfect should offer a heifer. And when they had killed it, to burn it, and that then the children should take its ashes and put them in a container, and that scarlet wool should be wrapped around a piece of wood-Observe the type of the Cross again, and the scarlet wool and the hyssop-and thus the children should sprinkle each person to cleanse them of sins? Understand what is said with such simplicity. The calf is Jesus. Those sinful men who offered it are those who presented Him for slaughter. These men are no more. No more the glory of sinners! Those who sprinkle are children, the very ones who preach to us forgiveness of sins and purification of the heart. To them He entrusted the proclamation of the Gospel. They are Twelve in number, representing the tribes” (Pseudo-Barnabas 8.1-3).

Numbers 19, after introducing, in connection with the heifer, the lustral water of purification, goes on to speak of the need of such purification in the case of someone who touches a dead body (verses 11-14) or even a grave (verse 16).

All this discussion about water prepares the reader for story about a lack of water in the next chapter.

Wednesday, July 20

Numbers 20: This story of the drought parallels that in Exodus 17:1-7. This parallel is one of several that serve to frame the gift of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

The opening verse is somewhat repetitious of Numbers 13:26. Did Israel actually go to Kadesh twice? While this is possible, it does not seem likely. More probable, it would appear, is the suggestion that the events of the previous few chapters took place during the early years at Kadesh, whereas the events now about to be recorded happened toward the end of the lengthy time.

It was at Kadesh that Miriam died.

The desert of Zin, sparsely inhabited by wandering nomadic tribes, formed the southern border to the land of Edom, just south of Canaan (Numbers 34:3; Joshua 15:1). It included the Negev.

This new drought provokes more murmuring and a rebellious spirit (verses 2-5). If, as we have supposed, these events took place toward the end of Israel's stay at Kadesh, the people have been gone from Egypt nearly forty years. Still, it is the same old complaint: Why did Moses insist on taking everybody out of that lovely, wonderful land, Egypt, and bringing them out here in the desert to die of thirst? The whole fault is Moses and his brother Aaron.

Once again the prayer of these brothers (verse 6) is answered by God's instruction for remedying the problem (verses 7-8). The “rod” is not identified, but the proximity of this story to that in chapter 17 prompts us to identify it as the miraculous rod of Aaron. The “his” describing it can refer to either man.

Ancient legend identified the “rock” in this passage with the rock in Exodus 17, a rock that actually traveled along with the people through the desert. The Apostle Paul identified that rock for us, remarking that “all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4).

The Lord's sudden wrath against Moses and Aaron (verse 12) apparently responds to their lack of faith (“because you did not believe Me”), perhaps indicated by Moses' striking the rock twice (verse 11). In fact, the text does not even say that Moses was to strike the rock at all; he was to take the rod and “speak” to the rock. The text remains, anyway, a bit obscure, prompting various speculations from earliest times.

Having incurred the Lord's wrath, neither Moses nor Aaron will be with the Israelites when they enter the land of Canaan (verse 24). The site of this incident gave it the name Meriba, meaning “strife.”

Israel now seeks permission to travel through the territory of Edom, using the royal highway (verses 14-17), a traditional caravan road running north from Israel's present position. Edom declines the request, thus discounting its ancient blood ties to Israel (verses 18-21).

Israel then moves to Mount Hor, now commonly identified as Jebel el Madra (verse 22). It is on top of that mountain that Aaron, handing the priestly succession to his son Eleazar, dies and is buried. The people see Eleazar, clad in the robes of the high priest, descend from the mountain with Moses (verses 23-29).

Thursday, July 21

Numbers 21: As we saw in the previous chapter, Israel is running out of choices. If they are ever to enter the Promised Land, it will be necessary to pass through someone's territory. Their neighbors also realize this, and they are becoming understandably anxious. Tensions are on the rise.

These tensions are especially acute toward the south of Canaan, the area adjacent to Israel's current encampment. A local leader in the area, “King Arad of Canaan,” decided to hit Israel with a peremptory strike, in order to discourage the newcomers from any thought of entering the Holy Land by the southern route (verses 1-2). Israel's counterattack was entirely successful (verse 3), but they still did not pursue that route. Arad's name is still borne by a large mound (or tell) in that region, east of Beersheba.

Continuing their journey, the Israelites move further east to skirt the territory of the uncooperative Edomites (verse 4). Their recent discouragement leads to the incident of the Brazen Serpent (verses 5-9). The “fiery” (saraph, the root of the word Seraphim, by the way) serpents are so called by reason of the painful inflammation casued by their bite.

It is curious that this incident took place near Punon (33:42), where there were large copper mines at the time (Late Bronze Age), and it is certainly worth remarking that the excavations at Lachish, to the west, uncovered a bronze image of a snake dating from exactly this period! The story in 2 Kings 18:4, however, prevents our getting carried away with respect to this archeological find.

Anyway, the true significance of the Brazen Serpent is explained in Wisdom 16:5-10 and John 3:14-16.

Israel, having skirted eastward to avoid the territory of the Edomites (verses 10-11), turn northward again and come to Wadi Zered, which separated Edom from Moab. This wadi, known today as Wadi el-Hesa, meaning “stream of the willow,” flows westward into the Dead Sea. This is the furthest north that the whole people have traveled.

Then, continuing northward but remaining well to the east, in order to avoid the land of the Moabites, Israel eventually arrived at the Arnon River, a westward flowing tributary of the Jordan (verses 12-16). It was very clear, of course, that if they would enter the land of Canaan, they would eventually have to move westward and, inevitably, cross someone else's land, where their progress would be challenged. This they were not eager to do. Meanwhile, Israel crossed over to the north bank of the Arnon and stopped on the northeastern outskirts of Moab, the capital of which was Ar. Here they abode long enough to dig a well (verses 16-17).

The Arnon, which the Israelites have now crossed, was the northern border of Moab, separating the Moabites from the Amorites on the other side of the river. Israel, having no quarrel with the Amorites, seeks permission to travel westward through their territory (verses 21-22). The Amorite king, Sihon, meets their request with a show of force (verse 23), but Israel defeats him soundly and actually seizes a portion of the territory. Indeed, this victory gives Israel its first piece of real estate, but they are still east of the Jordan (verses 24,31-32).

This territory, thus conquered from the Amorite, had but recently belonged to the Moabites (verses 25-29). Years later the Amorites would demand the return of this land, and Jephthe would be obliged to remind them that it had never really belonged to them anyway (Judges 11:4-27).

Having conquered part of the Amorite kingdom, Israel continued its northward march, proceeding parallel to the Jordan River, always looking for a westward passage across the Jordan into Canaan. Thus they arrived at the land of Bashan, a mountainous region east of the Jordan and extending up to the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon. At the southern extremity of the land of Bashan stood Mount Nebo. Here the Israelites arrive and settle for a while (verses 33-35). They have already conquered some land east of the Jordan, which they will in due course annex to the Promised Land.

Friday, July 22

Numbers 22: Israel's hosts now encamp on “the plains of Moab,” that Moabite territory north of the Arnon, territory which Israel had recently seized from the Amorites.

From this position, looking directly west, they have before them a wide and impressive vista. On their immediate right are the brown hills of Bashan, slightly to the left of which the viewers are able to trace the long, serpentine, green valley of the Jordan, on the opposite bank of which, but slightly to the right, stands the city of Jericho.

The same viewers, turning a bit to their left but still looking ahead, gaze on the northern fringe of the Dead Sea, the lowest geological point on the earth. It is at this point that the Jordan empties into the Dead Sea. A few degrees further right, on a clear day they can behold outlines of Jerusalem. Humanly speaking, everything would seem ready for Israel's crossing of the Jordan, but other trials and an entire book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, sill precede that great event.

The first of these trials comes from the Moabites, whose settled territory Israel has assiduously refrained from entering. Moab sits to Israel's immediate south, exactly ninety degrees to the left of those gazing over the Jordan (verse 1).

The Moabites, having recently been defeated by the Amorites, are rather impressed by Israel, the newcomer now victorious over those same Amorites (verses 2-3). Balak, the Moabite king, eager for a bit of help from on high, seeks the spiritual assistance of Balaam, evidently a well-known diviner, urging him to come and curse Israel (verse 6). He had to send some distance to summons Balaam, who lived far, far north at Pethor (called Pitru in Assyrian records), a city on the west bank of the Euphrates, some twelve miles south of Carchemish (verse 5).

Balaam, divinely instructed on the point, declines the summons to come and curse Israel (verses 7-14). The second invitation, however, Balaam accepts, again at divine instruction (verses 15-21). Nonetheless, the Lord may have sensed some inner infidelity in Balaam, because He becomes angry and sends an angel with a sword to convey one last warning message to Balaam (verse 22). There ensues one of the most humorous stories in Holy Scripture, the encounter of the angel with Balaam's donkey, which seems to be the only talking animal in the Old Testament (verses 23-35). (When I first read this story to my little children many years ago, they immediately remarked on this fact, mentioning that the feature was something they more readily associated with fairy tales. Their remarks, I thought, showed considerable skill at literary criticism.)

Duly chastened by the encounter with the angel, and having acquired a new respect for his donkey, Balaam eventually arrives at Moab and is taken to a height from which he can gaze down on the assembled hosts of Israel (verses 36-41).

Saturday, July 16

Numbers 23: These next two chapters contain four oracles of Balaam relative to Israel, each of which is set in a liturgical context, complete with the offering of sacrifice. The words of the oracles come from the Lord Himself (verses 5,16).

The first oracle (verses 8-10), called a “parable” (mashal-verse 7), testifies to the futility of defying God, even by religious means, such as blessing and cursing. In mystic vision Balaam see that there is more going on than meets the eye in Israel's sudden appearance in this time and place. There is more happening than human force can control or explain. Even this pagan and unworthy prophet can discern that God's secret purposes are at work, such as only a fool would undertake to resist. Israel, says Balaam, is not like other nations (verse 9).

Needless to say, this is not what Balak had in mind to hear (verse 11), and the Moabite king, evidently of the opinion that a change of view might be helpful to his cause, takes Balaam up to a higher place and asks him to give it a go from a new angle, as it were, a fresher approach to the situation (verse 14).

From Balak's perspective, this new angle is no help at all. Indeed, it simply amplifies the former message, insisting that on the inevitability of God's purpose respecting Israel (verses 18-24).

Completely frustrated, Balak wants to cancel the whole performance (verse 25), but the show must go on, says Balaam (verse 26). It is too late to stop. All right, answers Balak, let's try to find a third angle from which to view the thing. So everyone prepared to go through the whole complicated process once again (verses 27-30).

We behold Balak's bewilderment, as he continues to imagine that the gist of prophecy consists in changing one's perspective and looking at things from a different angle. This frustrating exercise is also part of the Lord's plan, so He permits the charade to continue. This next message will be of a piece with the other two.



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