A difficult text for evangelising Christians…part 1

Good morning!

Well, it’s morning here, and I felt like being specific. But good whatever-it-is whenever you are reading this.

The book of Numbers is not the kind of book which even the most serious Bible-believing Christians tend to have great familiarity with in general. There are some big, obvious stories, but I’ll try to run those of you who don’t know Numbers at all super-rapidly through it. For those with both time and motivation, check out the Wiki link (which will tell you the real actual meaning of the name of the book that we know in English today as ‘Numbers’:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Numbers

In Numbers, we see God working to bring order and coherence out of chaos. The military-style census in chapter 1 is a telescopic lens to the rest of the book (and the rest of the Bible, for that matter).  In chapter 3 we see God creating working and societal infrastructure for the Levites, who served the Temple – something of great relevance to us contemporary ‘Levites!’ Chapter 6 features both the ‘law of the Nazarite’  – that is what Samson was – as well as one of the most popular and enduring Biblical benedictions (verses 24-26). In chapter 8 the Levites are consecrated. Silver trumpets appear in chapter 10, and the infamous quails appear (given because the Israelites were unhappy with God’s manna provision and desired a more carnivorous approach to mealtimes) in chapter 11.

Miriam’s and Aaron’s jealousy and sedition (which resulted in Miriam’s leprosy) is the story of chapter 12, just before the spies are sent in chapter 13. We learn in chapter 14 that the people did not respond well to the report, and God nearly eviscerated them, but in one of the most astonishing exchanges between God and man in all Scripture, Moses interceded for his people. If you read nothing else this week, read Numbers 14!

The infamous rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram is in chapter 16. God continues to stabilise and organise through to chapter 20, where we say goodbye to both Miriam and Aaron – who is succeeded as High Priest by his son Eleazar. More complaining against God on a large scale follows in chapter 21, with God sending vicious serpents into the camp, but healing taking place through the beholding of a bronze serpent on a pole (v.9). The next Hollywood star to surface on the screen is the prophet Balaam (chapters 22-24)! What a tale that is – followed the the account of wide-scale apostasy by the Israelites and the subsequent death of 24, 000 people in chapter 25.

Joshua is appointed as Moses’ successor in chapter 26; Balaam dies in chapter 31; the order for the complete destruction of the Canaanites follows in chapter 33; we learn about the 6 ‘cities of refuge’ in chapter 35, and one chapter later Numbers has ended!

~

Let’s go back to Numbers 1 – verse 51. I’m interested in the very last section of the text, which in the KJV reads: “…and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be out to death.”

Hopefully this now puts the title of this post into context. The text itself also needs to be put into context – the stranger that comes near to WHAT exactly shall be put to death? If we go back to verse 50 and take the whole of verse 51, we see that the Levites have been given charge of the tabernacle – they and they alone are to bear responsibility for everything to do with it, including setting it up and taking it down as they continued their nomadic existence. And so the instruction – any stranger who comes near the tabernacle is to be put to death.

Do not all Bible-believing Christians believe that God is relational? Does God not want to be known? What about the text in Exodus 25:8? How is it coherent to talk about Jesus being a ‘friend’ to seekers after God when the OT has a text like that which seems to be saying that a stranger could not approach God’s tabernacle – and death would be the penalty for disobeying? How does that square with the notion of a God who wants to be known?

This question has massive and formidable implications for worship and mission. In part 2 of this post, I will endeavour to explain how this works.

Until then, God be with you all.

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