Beyond the Lectionary Text: Numbers 14
by Chelsey Harmon
Where does one begin with this story? Do you focus on how an entire people betray their faithfulness Saviour? Do you try to skip over how angry God is about their betrayal? Do you draw upon Moses’ request for Yahweh to forgive as the spot of hope in an otherwise very sad story? For that matter, do you hone in on God’s lovingkindness in forgiving the people but not releasing them from punishment? Or do you highlight the end of the story, when the Israelites try to undo their bad deed even though it’s too late? Each of these sections carry with it a lesson about life with God. Most of them carry more bad examples of that life than good.
Even if you were to take the story as a whole rather than in parts, you’re unlikely to feel much better. This moment in the chosen people’s history isn’t a pleasant one to reflect upon, and quite honestly, God doesn’t come off looking all that great— especially to modern listeners. In my church, at the end of the reading of God’s Word, the preacher says, “This is the word of the Lord” and the congregation responds with, “Thanks be to God.” When the story ends with a happy ending because God does something awesome, the “Thanks be to God” is exuberant and loud. After a text like this one though, it’s much softer and demure, sounding more like a duty of the people than a joy.
That’s because we feel the weight of these stories of human fallenness. There is too much humanness in the Israelites to relate to when they act like this. When we read about their follies, we’re reminded of our own, how we have let God and others down— we know what it’s like to hurt those we love without realizing it until it was too late, we know what it’s like to try to fix something that is unable to be “glued back together,” we know what it’s like to be forgiven but unable to return to the state of the relationship before the trust was broken.
And if your initial reactions about the heaviness of this story aren’t about our human shortcomings, they are more than likely centred on the recourse of the spurned lover, otherwise known as Yahweh. God is ANGRY. We’re talking the kind of anger that led Yahweh to destroy-the-world-with-a-flood-angry, albeit harnessed to the destruction of his chosen people and not the entire world. Here, at the cusp of bringing his people into the promised land, God is willing to return his plan to when the nation well on its way to becoming a people “as numerous as the stars in the sky” was a nation of one, Abraham. He tells Moses that he’s ready to give the Israelites exactly what they think awaits them (death), and start all over with him, Moses.
What gets God this angry? The people he delivered from slavery and a life of little meaning in Egypt, who cried out for redemption and were led to safety by Yahweh’s mighty arm, have shown with their words where their heart is and it’s not with him.
Chapter 13 recounts the report of the spies who went into the Promised Land to bring back fruit for Moses to use as tangible proof of the goodness that awaited them. Instead of a positive report, the fear of ten of the twelve spies is passed on to the whole people; a quick scan of the chapter is telling in what is missing from the spies report: God and his promises about the land. In contrast, in chapter 14 Aaron and Moses fall on their face— knowing the dangerous territory the mob is headed in following their fear— and pray before the Almighty. Meanwhile, Caleb and Joshua, the two faithful spies, try to persuade the crowd with the goodness of the land and the God who promised to provide it. But their encouragement to “not rebel against the Lord” is met with shouts to stone them!
The people do not want God’s plan— they want to choose their own leader, one who will do what they want to do— which is to go back to Egypt. By doing so, they reject the God who has protected them by a pillar of fire by night and cloud by day. Not only do they reject God’s plan, forgetting altogether what he promised, they blame God and make him the author of their future demise. Even before they have actually suffered, they play the blame game and God is the loser. The rabbis teach that the wilderness is like the adolescence and teen years of the nation of Israel: stubborn, moody, flighty, melodramatic, selfish, and disobedient in order to assert independence. We see it all here.
Moses knows better than to use anything about Israel’s worthiness in his reasoning to God for grace. In what reads in our modern world as how one might reason with a tyrant dictator, Moses appeals to God’s reputation in the world— the difference, of course, being that Moses is arguing for leniency, not destruction. It’s one of those circumstances that make systematic theologians, and normal Christians alike, a bit uncomfortable: does God need Moses to point out these things to him, or are they there for us to learn from? If Moses didn’t speak up, would God have relented in time? So much of our hopes for God’s action towards us are based on who we believe God is, notably that God is unchanging or immutable. Yet the more time we spend in the Old Testament, the more we question our modern understanding of the attribute of God called immutability.
In fact, there are a number of scholars and believers who choose to appeal, not to God’s immutability or unchanging nature, but to God’s steadfastness, a word that appears here in Moses’ speech to God and in many other Old Testament narratives. “Let the power of the Lord be great,” Moses says, “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…” Moses doesn’t actually say anything new to God, but voices and declares, as an intercessory prayer for these people who have frustrated him to no end as well, what God has already made known in this world about who he is and how he works.
As real as God’s presence witnessed by the nations among the people of Israel (cloud and fire and miracles) are God’s words of promise and protection. Moses knows that God has it in him to do so because God has already done so numerous times since he led the people out of Egypt. Moses sees this as another opportunity for God to show himself to the world. Because God is steadfast as a forgiver, one of the chief characteristics/attributes the people of God have come to depend upon, Yahweh does forgive the people who have not asked for it, even though they do not even recognize that they have done him wrong.
It’s this lack of understanding among the people that forces Yahweh to not “clear the guilty.” Sometimes, stubborn people must learn by experience. So the Lord gives the Israelites what their words and the disposition of their hearts have expressed: death in the wilderness. Well, not everything… One of the reasons the Israelites give for wanting to go back to Egypt is the fear that their children will become ‘booty,’ captured by those they would fight. As a subtle but very large act of God’s steadfast lovingkindness, he promises that these children will be the one who enter the promised land, even though it was their parents who did not believe and trust him.
But of course, when Moses relays the revelation of God, the people hear no good news and they mourn. Coming face to face with the severity of what they have brought upon themselves, the Israelites awake the next morning to try to fix it themselves. Yet again, our human experience finds company in the pages of Scripture… Instead of following Moses and Aaron’s example by falling on their face in prayer to God, they try to obey God’s former plans for them, choosing to deny God’s current plan to send them back into the wilderness. (Ironically, sending them into the wilderness is also sending them the direction of Egypt; again, what they ‘asked for’.) Moses tries to warn them, but the group still suffers from the same stubbornness that got them into this mess and it ends in awful destruction, serving as warning to any who would choose to disobey and leave the presence of God and its accompanying safety.
As much as we may not like it, perhaps it’s important to let this particular part of God’s story end there. Consequences, but for the moments of God’s direct intervention, are part of living in a fallen world as fallen, sinful, human beings. As much as we may wish that God would fix our mess-ups, he chooses instead to use the process of healing and reconciliation as part of the Holy Spirit’s work of transformation, drawing us closer to him and to one another. (Colossians 1.15-20)
How do forgiveness and justice weave together in God’s covenant relationship with Israel? Does this passage give us any guidance? God forgives the Israelites, but it is in the context of the relationship that has been betrayed, not in the direct circumstances of their rebellion; they are allowed to experience the consequences of their choices, them and their children. This will continue to be the big question of the Hebrew Scriptures as the people rebel; the events depicted here will not be the last time that Yahweh feels like a spurned lover, rejected by his bride.
At Deuteronomy 1.19ff. Moses retells this story to the new generation outside the Promised Land. Compare and contrast the focus of each story to see what God wants his people to learn from each.
One could liken Moses’ conversation with Yahweh as a session of marriage counseling: one partner in the covenant has been deeply wronged by the other, blame is getting thrown around, selfishness is ruling the day, and there is a lack of understanding how deep the pain and sacrifice by only one half of the partnership truly is. When Yahweh cannot take comfort in the love of his bride, he must return to his vows and what he promised to do. Thank goodness— for all of us— that God takes his vows very seriously.
Rev. Chelsey Harmon is the pastor of Christ Community Church, Nanaimo, British Columbia.