Faithlife Sermons

The Book of Numbers

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The Book of Numbers is one of the darker texts in scripture:

Here’s how it begins...

How it begins...

Numbers 1:2–3 NRSV
Take a census of the whole congregation of Israelites, in their clans, by ancestral houses, according to the number of names, every male individually; from twenty years old and upward, everyone in Israel able to go to war. You and Aaron shall enroll them, company by company.
Chapter 1 -- a military census, the number of men twenty years and older who are able to go to war.
Chapter 2 -- how the Israelites are supposed to camp, namely, in their regiments.

Its geography…

Over the course of the book, the Israelites travel through the following places...
Taberah or “Burning”
Kibroth-hattaavah or “Graves of Craving”
Meribah or “Quarrel”
Hormah or “Destruction”
Iye-abarim or “Ruins of Abarim”
Nahaliel or “Torrent Valley of God”
Jeshimon or “Wasteland”
Marah or “Bitter Lakes”
And also a place simply called…the “wilderness of Sin.”

Its characterization of Israel’s relationships with the other people groups in the area:

They’re giants!
No free passes.
King of Edom.
King Sihon of the Amorites.
A serious commitment to cursing.
Numbers 22:5–6 NRSV
He sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor at Pethor, which is on the Euphrates, in the land of Amaw, to summon him, saying, “A people has come out of Egypt; they have spread over the face of the earth, and they have settled next to me. Come now, curse this people for me, since they are stronger than I; perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land; for I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.”
Numbers 22:5-

Finally, there is the motif of God’s anger:

At least 2 consuming fires.
The King of Moab
At least 3 plagues.
1 swallowing up by earth.
1 sending of snakes.
It’s no wonder the Israelites keep clamoring to go back to Egypt in this dark biblical text. At least the food is good there!
Numbers 11:5–6 NRSV
We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”
Numbers 11:5
Numbers is one of the bible’s darker books, and as such, conducive to helping people achieve a more balanced, adult faith.

In Convictions, Marcus Borg describes the two central challenges he faced as a teen when it came to his faith...

Science (esp., astronomy).

Impure thoughts.

Not having come of age in the 50’s or early 60’s, these weren’t issues for me.

What did prove challenging:

Another quite common teen experience:
My first experience of death.
And of the public language of grieving.
Cheri’s with Jesus now.
God must have wanted her with him.
After all, God only takes the best.
The questions this language often raises for young people:
What are we to make of God’s intentions regarding or relationship to the man who drove the truck?
Wasn’t there a more just way of taking this “best person” back than to have someone go through the experience of having caused their death?
So our loved one is with Jesus now, but what about the truck driver? In what sense is Jesus also with him?

Numbers is indeed one of the bible’s darker books...

But as such, it can be highly conducive to helping people achieve a more balanced, adult faith.

Consider for a moment how an awareness of this book’s particular gifts might have framed a conversation about that truck driver’s experience...
What he might have been going through, e.g.:
The experience of being cursed.
The experience of being buried alive.
The experience of being punished by God.
The feeling of needing to defend himself.
A new and very scary spiritual geography, a wilderness of Bitter Lakes, Wastelands, Destruction, and Torrent Valleys.
An incredibly intense desire to travel back in time.
And how an awareness of this book’s perspective might help especially young people understand why the church speaks to the experience of death the way it does.

The roll of faith in this book:

While it is not to pretend that things are great...

It’s not to pretend that things are great.

To keep the language of justice, mercy and love alive in the face of life’s harshness.

Like Moses does when he literally faces God down in today’s scripture.
As Moses does quite literally in today’s scripture.
Numbers 14:17-
The Israelites, who are freaking out over the spies’ report.
the Israelites, who are freaking out over the spies’ report.
Numbers 14:2 NRSV
And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!
Numbers 14:2
God, who is angry and threatening destruction.
Numbers 14:12 NRSV
I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”
Numbers 14:
And Moses, who, as Israel’s main prophet, must literally face down and speak to the harsh reality of God’s anger.
And while there is a certain charm to that facing down.
Moses’ role as leader is to face down and speak at the harsh reality of God’s anger.
First, he is like — what will people say?
Numbers 14:17–19 NRSV
And now, therefore, let the power of the Lord be great 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, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.’ Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have pardoned this people, from Egypt even until now.”
Numbers 14:
Numbers 14:15–16 NRSV
Now if you kill this people all at one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.’
Like ministers do at funerals.
Then he’s like — allow me to remind you of how you have described yourself to me in the past (see ) — with special emphasis on the “steadfast love” aspect of your self-described personality.
And like all of us are called to do when the going gets rough.
Numbers 14:18
Numbers 14:18 NRSV
‘The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.’
Numbers 14:18–19 NRSV
‘The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.’ Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have pardoned this people, from Egypt even until now.”
After all, it is not a little thing in this world to speak of love in the midst of darkness.
The really important thing in this scene is the seriousness with which it approaches the reality of God’a anger.
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