May 09, 2007

Numbers 14-15: Between a rock and a hard place

Today's reading is Numbers 14-15 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the people's rebellion because of the scouts' report, God's punishment of the nation because of this, instructions for supplementary offerings for unintentional sins, the stoning of a sabbath-breaker, and instructions for putting tassels on the fringes of garments.

Imagine that you're Moses. You have just received word from your scouts (Num. 13) that while the land you're supposed to conquer is exceedingly good, it is inhabited by giants who would crush your people. The people, hearing this, riot. They don't want to die, they say. They would rather have died in Egypt than in the wilderness. You try to console them, but it doesn't help. Two of your scouts, Joshua and Caleb, also try to console them by saying that with God on your side, you can't lose. But nothing seems to calm these people down. (Num. 14:1-10)

The Lord appears to you, righteously angry. He's fed up with these people, who continually doubt his power despite all the miracles he's shown them. He wants to wipe them all out and make you, Moses, into a greater nation than they ever were. (Num. 14:10-12)

And now you are left with the role, yet again, of soothing God's anger and preventing the demise of this hard-headed people.

Moses surprisingly needs to play this intermediary role a number of times. Each time, he appeals to God's sense of pride. Take, for example, Ex. 32:11-14, right after Aaron makes the golden calf for the people. Here, too, God threatens to wipe out the people. Moses stops him by saying that if he, God, wipes out the people, the Egyptians will say that God only brought the people out of Egypt in order to kill them. God realizes this is not a connection he wants the other nations to make, and relents.

The situation is similar here in Num. 14:13-19. Again he talks about the Egyptians and the other nations, and says (to paraphrase), "if you kill them all, the other nations will say that you did it because you couldn't bring them into the land you promised them." God, obviously, does not want to be seen as weak by the other nations.

Moses follows up this logic by flattering God (Num. 14:17-19). He reminds the lord of all his (the Lord's) good qualities: slow to anger, abounding in love, forgiving of sin and rebellion, and punishing of the guilty. And, so buttered up, he asks God to forgive the Hebrews.

Perhaps surprisingly, God agrees. However, he does not forgive unconditionally. He says that though he forgives the Israelites, none of the current generation will enter the new land except for Joshua and Caleb, the two loyal scouts. The rest of the people will wander in the desert for forty years, one year for each day of scouting. (Num. 14:20-35)

To Moses, this may have seemed like a reasonable compromise: the people stay alive but don't face the giants who frighten them so much. The people, however, see things differently. When Moses informs them that they will not enter the land, they mourn and agree that they have sinned. (Num. 14:39) Then, somewhat like young children, they agree to go back to the original plan and enter the land, certain that God will be on their side against the giants. Moses reminds them that their new punishment is that they will not enter the land, but they people don't listen. They rush up the hilltop, despite Moses' protestations and warnings that God would not help them, and promptly find themselves slaughtered by the Amalekites and Canaanites. (Num. 14:40-45)

What can we learn from this incident? What does it teach us about the mentality of God, Moses, and the Israelites?

First, we learn that God can be swayed by mortals. This is, of course, nothing new. Abraham bargains with God as far back as Gen. 18. Moses himself bargains with God on a number of occasions, most notably Ex. 32 (mentioned above). As I mentioned in previous essays, we cannot know whether this bargaining was part of God's plan. It is possible, though it seems unlikely, that God intended Abraham and Moses to bargain with him, and intended himself to be swayed. Perhaps this was merely a test of the men involved, not of God. On the other hand, it certainly seems as if God is changing his mind, thankfully towards the course of not slaughtering hundreds of thousands of people.

We also learn more about Moses' humility. Despite the presentation of Moses in such movies as The Ten Commandments, in which he is a haughty, prideful man, we see here that Moses is actually quite humble. After all, God is offering him the same deal he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: I will make from your descendants a great nation. Not only that, but to fulfill this compact, God would not even need to break his original agreement with the three patriarchs: Moses descends from them, so technically all his descendants would also be Abraham's descendants. But Moses declines. He would rather lead the Israelites, hard-headed and whiny as they are, than become the patriarch of his own race. Not everyone would choose similarly.

Finally, we learn about the Israelites themselves. In this chapter, they seem particularly inattentive and juvenile. First, they are afraid to enter the new land because of the giants that supposedly reside there. Even when Joshua and Caleb try to reassure them, they will not listen. On the other hand, when Moses tells them they cannot enter the land (which, let's face it, is what they just said they wanted), they moan and complain and say that they'll be good and enter the land. Imagine a two-year old who pushes away his mashed potatoes, but as soon as mommy takes away the plate and says he can't have it, he suddenly starts reaching for it. It's reverse psychology gone wrong, because this time they people really can't enter the land. It's forbidden. They go anyway, and they die, fulfilling their original fear of the land's inhabitants. The incident would be comical if not for the massive loss of life.

So now we know that God is a pushover, Moses won't rise to the occasion, and the Israelites are more temperamental than a toddler without an afternoon nap. Jews and Christians in the audience, aren't you glad to know these people were your ancestors?

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