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 31
Numbers 31: Except for a recent skirmish with the Amorites a few chapters ago, the armies of Israel have not been involved in much fighting for a long time. The recent oracles of Balaam, however, indicated that Israel is now a significant military power, and we know that its armies will soon cross the Jordan to conquer Canaan. Hence, it is time to review some of the rules for warfare, specifically as they pertain to prisoners and spoils. Such is the burden of the present chapter, in which, once again, a prompting narrative precedes the rules.
Moses, before his death, must oversee Israel's vengeance on the Midianites (verse 2). This task, which involves only a fraction of Israel's forces (verses 3-6), is explained by Numbers 25:18, where we learned of a collusion between Moab and Midian in the moral seduction of young Israelites. That collusion also explains why Balaam is one of the casualties of the present conflict (verse 8).
Israel's force of twelve thousand is accompanied by Phineas, the warlike priest who is charged with blowing the trumpet (verse 6).
The reported execution of every Midianite male (verse 7) should be understood with something less than mathematical exactness, since we know that the Midianites in the next generation will be stronger than ever (cf. Judges 6).
This successful exercise in warfare brought certain practical problems attendant on military victory, chiefly what to do with the surviving captives and their possessions (verses 9-12). Moses is upset that ANY enemies survived the battle (verse 14). After all, were not these the very women who had corrupted Israel's youth just a few chapters back (verse 16)? In the end he permits only the virgins to be spared, in order to become wives for the Israelites (verse 18).
The ensuing slaughter of the women and little boys rightly offends our moral sense. If it did not, we would be in sorry shape. It also cautions us, however, against elevating our moral sense in an absolute way that would challenge the holiness of God. This incident of the Moabites and Midianites was an attack on the holiness of God, and therefore it involves something more than a merely human offense. Although we correctly disapprove of killing women and children in the context of war, and more especially when the war is already over, this correct moral disapprobation is not the last word. In the execution of the Midianites we touch on the holiness of God. The holiness of God so transcends the moral sense of man that its activity, as exemplified here, may strike man's moral sense in offensive ways. God is holier than even the most moral of moral men. This is all to say that man's morality is one thing, and a very good thing, but the holiness of God is infinitely more.
All killing of human beings, even when blood is justly shed in combat, is defiling and requires cleansing (verses 19-20). This does not mean that the shedding of blood in these circumstances is morally wrong. On the contrary, shedding blood in a just war is morally right. Still, it falls infinitely short of the purity necessary for entering into God's presence in worship. This is the reason that a purification process is necessary. This is another example in which the holiness of God stands infinitely above the morality of man.
Following this narrative comes the rules for the disposition of persons and booty captured in war (verses 22-40). A percentage of these spoils was dedicated to divine service, very much like the fruits of labor (verses 41-54).
This chapter's final section displays the same concern for numerical exactness and tabulation that we have elsewhere seen in this book appropriately called Numbers.
Monday, August 1
Numbers 32: Life is soon to change for the Chosen People. They have never been sedentary, not even in Egypt, where they lived as semi-nomadic shepherds. How, however, they are to become farmers, the very type of people most tied to the land.
The differences between these two ways of life (exemplified as far back as Cain and Abel) are not reducible simply to their sources of their livelihood. The differences extend, rather, to the entire social structure, particularly government and systems of loyalty.
Not all the Israelites are equally keen on making this transition to agriculture and vine-growing, especially those tribes that have been most successful in raising herds These included, especially, the tribes of Reuben and Gad, which now announce their preference to remain in the good grazing land east of the Jordan (verses 1-5).
Moses' immediate objection to this suggestion concerns Israel's diminished military strength, if its forces were to be reduced by two tribes. He likens the request of these two tribes to the earlier incident when the twelve spies brought back a discouraging word from their inspection of the Holy Land. Indeed, this discouragement is the point of the comparison (verses 6-15; compare Judges 5:16-17).
The tribes of Gad and Reuben, by way of response, declare their intention, after securing their own families on land east of the Jordan, to remain with the invading force until all the Promised Land is conquered (verses 16-19).
Moses agrees to this arrangement (verses 20-24), and the two tribes repeatedly pledge their cooperation (verses 25-27,31-32). Moses announces the compromise to the rest of Israel's leadership (verses 28-30).
Half the tribe of Manasseh, whose recent significant growth we have already had occasion to observe, is added to these two tribes inheriting land east of the Jordan (verse 33), and the chapter ends with a list of new Israelite villages and strongholds in that territory (verses 34-42).
The tribes that settled in the land of Gilead will be subject to unusually difficult pressures in the centuries to follow, as various peoples east of the Jordan, but especially Syria, will look upon that rich grazing land with a covetous eye.
Tuesday, August 2
Numbers 33: As Israel's long journey draws nigh to its end, the inspired author of this book thinks it an opportune time to recount the stages, since Egypt, that the Chosen People have traveled (verse 1). This list is based on Moses own “log” of the trip, but the Lord Himself directed this recording of it (verse 2).
For us readers, nonetheless, identifying each of these places is a far from certain exercise. When the desert is called a “trackless waste,” full consideration should be given to that description. Deserts and their shifting sands are notoriously deficient in stable landmarks, and this record antedates by far the art of calculating one's precise geographical position by reference to the stars. In addition, archeology has not been able, in every instance, to identify the place names listed in this chapter. If it did, we could confidently map out the entire period of Israel's desert wandering.
An illustration of our difficulty is immediately provided by the name “Sukkoth” (verses 456-6), which means tents or booths. It may be the case that this place received its name for no other reason than the fact that Israel pitched its tents there.
The place names in the list in verses 5-15 correspond very closely to the account in Exodus 12:37-19:2. Dophkah (12-13), a name not included in Exodus, seems to be what is now called Serabit el Khadem, a site of turquoise mining in the south of the Sinai Peninsula. One suspects that Alush, also missing from Exodus, gave its name to Wadi el'esh, just south of Dophkah.
Kadesh, which Israel reaches by verse 36, is not desert at all. It is a lush valley with abundant spring water. The major spring was Ain el-Qudeirat, twelve miles from which is Ain Qudeis, which still preserves the name Kadesh.
Wednesday, August 3
Numbers 34: The present chapter may be read as a contrast with the chapter we have just finished, and this contrast pertains to both time and place. Having looked backwards in the previous chapter, the inspired writer now turns his attention to the future, and as the former chapter took the measure of the desert, the present chapter will measure the Promised Land.
The large territory considered in the first half of this chapter (verses 2-15) was not all conquered during Joshua's period of conquest. Not until the monarchy in the tenth century before Christ did Israel occupy such a large area. When in this chapter, three centuries earlier, its distribution was being considered, the thought may have seemed fantastic.
Nonetheless, the territory outlined here really does correspond very closely to the “Canaan” over which earlier Egyptian pharaohs had exercised dominion until the close of the fourteenth century before Christ. In this sense it would have seemed normal to Moses and his contemporaries to think of Canaan (verse 2) in these same dimensions.
Having come up from the south, Moses first considered Canaan's southern border. Under Israel's occupation this southern border will be the land of Edom (verse 3)-that is, a line running westward from the border of the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean (cf. Joshua 15”3-4; Ezekiel 47:19). The Wadi el-Arish (“river of Egypt”-verse verse 5) serves as a kind of natural division of the Negev from the Sinai Peninsula.
The “sea” (verse 5) and “great sea” (verse 6) are references to the Mediterranean, Israel's natural western border.
On the north a line running eastward from the Mediterranean, somewhat north of Byblos, to the desert beyond Damascus, will border Israel. Zedad is northeast of Mount Hermon (verse 7-9).
Respecting the eastern border of Canaan, its northeastern corner will be Benaias (a later name, derived from the Greek god, Pan), the major source of the Jordan River. Then the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan, and the Dead Sea will roughly form the natural eastern border (verses 11-12).
We note that these boundaries completely exclude the land recently claimed by Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh. These latter tribes, therefore, are not considered in the division of the land just circumscribed (verse 13-15)
The chapter ends by listing the names of the men charged with the division of the Holy Land (verse 16-29).
Thursday, August 4
Numbers 35: Part of the disposition of the Promised Land, a theme now continued from the previous chapter, is the arrangement for regional “cities of refuge.” These were special place of sanctuary for those whose lives were endangered by families seeking blood vengeance.
Since these assigned cities of refuge were all priestly cities, however, the chapter begins with the disposition of the priestly cities (cf. also Leviticus 25:32-34; Joshua 21:1-40). The tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe was to inherit forty-eight cities, including the six cities of refuge, dispersed throughout the whole Promised Land (verses 6-7). Attached to this inheritance is pasture land in the vicinity of the priestly cities (verses 2-5).
Most of this chapter, however, is devoted to the cities of refuge themselves (verses 10-34). Because they were priestly cities, these cities of refuge had shrines and altars that would serve as precincts of sanctuary (cf. Exodus 21:14; 1 Kings 1:51).
Three were assigned to Canaan, three to Transjordania (verse 14).
These assigned cities served two discrete purposes: first, to guarantee that no retributive action would be taken against an accused killer until a fair trial could determine whether or not his offense was intentional; and second, to provide a haven for such a one, after the trial, against those still disposed to take vengeance on him anyway. In both cases, the function of the “city of refuge” was to place rational and political restraints on the exercise of revenge.
While the more obvious category involved in the institution of sanctuary is spatial (that is, the setting apart of a measured precinct), it has another dimension that may be called “temporal” (that is, the setting apart of a measured time). The institution implies an “until.” Thus, the accused could not be harmed until he was properly tired (verse 12). If granted further asylum that that trial, the accused person was safe until the death of the high priest (Joshua 20:6). In regard to the heat of avenging passion, the biblical text shows here a conspicuous respect for the therapeutic influence of time. It recognizes that time is not on the side of passion but of reason.
Thus, these cities of refuge, beyond the political and judicial significance conveyed in their literal and historical sense, are also possessed of a moral and ascetical meaning. As institutions of restraint, they represent a healthy distrust of impetuosity. They stand for the rational mind's control over the passions, especially an avenging anger that feels itself to be righteous. This institution embodies the truth that “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).
Experience indicates that the passions, if not deliberately fueled and stoked, are marked by a native entropy. They resemble, in this respect, the flames often invoked to describe them. Left to themselves, the passions tend to diminish over time. Thus, wrath must act quickly, as it were, because it knows that its time is short (Revelation 12:12). Generally speaking, time is no friend to the passions.
Time is on the other side, that of reason. Reason, therefore, unlike the passions, knows how to wait. Reason is the realm of thought, and thought, unlike passion, requires the discipline of time. Consequently, properly cultivated reason is “slow to anger” (Proverbs 16:32; James 1:19).
Furthermore, reason is a bulwark of assured self-possession. Indeed, reason is slow precisely because it is confident. Reason can “take its time,” because, unlike the passions, reason deliberately invests in time. Time is one of reason's most interest-bearing endowments, its long-term investment. The true city of refuge, then, is the mind godly cultivated in the art of patience, cautious of the impromptu, wary of impulse, and suspicious of “quick returns.” Its manner is slow, deliberate. As a result, no blood is shed within its precincts; the avenger is restrained and sternly reprimanded at its gates.
Friday, August 5
Today's reflections will cover both the final chapter of Numbers and the opening verses of the Second Epistle of Peter.
Numbers 36: The Book of Numbers ends with a final determination about the property of heiresses, the topic of an earlier discussion (27:1-11). The question raised in this chapter is directed to the inheritance of this property in the event that the inheriting heiress marries outside of her own tribe (verse 3). That is to say, what is needed is a further clarification of the earlier ruling, and Moses perceives the need for this clarification (verse 5).
The solution to the difficulty is a prohibition against these heiresses, if they do claim their inheritance, marrying outside their own tribe, lest the inherited property be lost to that tribe (verse 7). This solution is consistent with the intention of the earlier disposition-namely, to preserve in integrity the inheritance of each tribe and family (verse 8).
These heiresses dutifully conform to the prescribed arrangement (verses 10-13).
The last verse of this book asserts divine sanction for the decisions and judgments made throughout chapters 22-36, raising them to the same level of authority as the commandments received on Mount Sinai.
2 Peter 1:1-11: In the present reading Peter speaks of Jesus as “Savior,” a term more often used in the New Testament to refer to God the Father. Nonetheless, in these three chapters Peter uses the expression five times in reference to Jesus (1:1,11; 2:20; 3:2,18). In each case, except in 1:1, the use of “Savior” is joined with “Lord.” This is very rare in early Christian literature. Christians today are so accustomed to speaking of Jesus as “Lord and Savior” that they do not realize that, were it not for 2 Peter, this expression would probably never have become so standard a part of Christian vocabulary.
Verse 4 is the only place in the New Testament that describes Christians as “partakers of the divine nature” (theias koinonoi physeos), a very bold description of divine grace. However, an identical theology of grace is expressed elsewhere in the New Testament with a different vocabulary (e.g., 1 John 1:3; 3:2,9; John 15:4; 17:22-23; Romans 8:14-17, and so on).
One also observes that this sharing in the divine nature is manifest as a particular “knowledge” (epignosis and gnosis) of God in Christ (verses 3,5,6,8). This knowledge of God, which is the substance of our call (klesis), must be made “secure” (bebaia - verse 9) by the cultivation of virtue (verses 5-8) and the avoidance of sin (verse 9).
Verse 11 identifies eternal life as “the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” an idea rare in early Christian literature (cf. Ephesians 5:5), which more often refers to the “kingdom of God.” The expression here in 2 Peter forms the biblical basis for that line of the Nicene Creed that speaks of Jesus, “of whose kingdom there shall be no end.”
Saturday, August 6
2 Peter 1:12-21: After they have been initially catechized, it is imperative that believers be repeatedly instructed in the foundations of the faith, considering its various aspects in their mutually interpretive connections (what is called the “analogy of faith” in Romans 12:6), and more profoundly reflecting on its implications in their lives (traditionally called the moral sense or tropology).
In the Holy Scriptures this ongoing endeavor of the Christian experience is known as “reminding,” in the sense of a renewal of mind. It is also known as “remembering,” in the sense of “putting the members back together again,” seeing the diverse parts of the faith afresh, in relationship to the whole.
This repeated pedagogical exercise of “calling to mind” is not an optional extra in the Christian life. (The only recognized “graduation ceremony” from Sunday School in the Christian Church is called the Rite of Burial.) It is, rather, an essential exercise of loving God with the whole mind, and the Bible often speaks of such remembrance (cf. 2 Peter 3:1-2; John 2:22; 12:16; Jude 3,5,17; 1 Corinthians 11:2,24).
The present text represents such an exercise (verses 12,13,15), in order to bring Peter's readers more consciously into what he calls “the present truth,” or, if you will, the truth as presence.
By way of pursuing this living remembrance, Peter narrates for them a story they must have heard many times, the account of the Lord's Transfiguration (also told in Mark 9, Matthew 17, and Luke 9), and he does this to serve, as it were, as a final testimony to them before his death (literally exodus in verse 15). Peter himself, that is to say, conscious that he will be outlived by one or more generations of Christians, writes this text as a legacy.
This perspective is quite different from the earlier epistles preserved in the New Testament (Paul's, for instance), all of them composed, not with a direct view to the future generations of the Church, but in order to address concrete questions of the hour. In this respect, the Second Epistle of Peter more closely resembles the four canonical gospels, which also bear the more explicit mark of “legacy.”
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