In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Once again, we’re skipping a couple of chapters in Numbers. Last time, we looked at the incident with the Moabites and the Midianites – and we talked about Israel’s first (questionably) encounter with foreign cultures. This effectively marks the end of the generation that left Egypt. If you recall, after Israel’s refusal to enter Canaan following the scouts’ report, God declared that none of the first post-Egypt generation would enter Canaan. So after last week’s passage, we get the second census in the book of Numbers – an accounting of all of the peoples of the nation. There’s also the account of Zelopehead’s daughters who would receive their father’s inheritance because Zelopehead had no sons. And finally, we get the announcement that, following Moses’ impending death (because he’s getting old and because he too cannot enter Canaan), Joshua would become the leader of Israel. Following that, we once again get a series of laws. This is where we are today.
One of the challenging things about studying Numbers is the way it’s structured. We’ve gone through the book pretty quickly, so far, skipping several chapters and focussing on the narrative parts, so it may not have been obvious (though if you’re reading the book along with the sermon series, you will have caught it). Normally, I like to have a pretty good idea of what’s going on before we head into a series like this, but that hasn’t been the case. Furthermore, as we’ve worked through the book, I haven’t really come to a satisfying conclusion about the structure, even at this point.
So, in short, I’m not sure why the law portions of the book are where they are, and I’m not sure why they are where they are. But, I thought it would be worthwhile talking about it, even though we’ve talked a lot about law before, and even though we will be approaching Deuteronomy pretty soon.
Again, we’ve looked at the law in the OT previously and looked at some of the law portions in Exodus and gone through the law texts (very broadly) in Leviticus. We’ve talked about covenant, we’ve talked about worship, and we’ve talked about mission (in the context of priesthood). And one of the main themes that we’ve been considering, not only in regards to the Law, but in regards to Israel’s journey through the desert, is formation. So we’re going to look at that little more closely – or perhaps, better, from a different perspective.
Firstly, I want to talk about the Law generally. When we talk about the Law, I think (though I could be wrong) that we tend to talk about the things that God tells us we have to do or cannot do. In certain places, this makes sense – for example, the Ten Commandments. But in a lot of places, they don’t make sense. Are we breaking the Law, for example by not observing the feasts that God commands (not even just in respect to offerings)? Understanding the Old Testament laws are frequently one of the more challenging biblical tasks for Christians. Because of this, often we just choose to ignore it. Now this is a topic that I might have left for our study of Deuteronomy, but I figured I might as well talk about it now.
One of the challenges of reading the Law texts is that they are so far removed from our own understanding of culture and practice. Some of the laws are easily understood (You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not bear false witness…) But some laws are so obscure as to be meaningless to us in the 21st century (Do not plant two kinds of seeds in a field; do not wear clothes that are made of two kinds of cloths).
Way back in Exodus, we introduced the idea of apodictic laws vs. casuistic laws. Once again, apodictic laws are those that apply to all peoples in all times. And casuistic laws are those that depend on circumstances (in a nutshell). This introduced the idea that some of the Old Testament laws were, in a sense, meant for a particular people in a particular time and place. But it still doesn’t really answer the question of, “in that time and place, and for that particular people, why does God care what kind of clothes they wear?” And further, “if they broke that law, does that mean they have sinned against God, or broken the covenant?”
Now I want to introduce another notion regarding the purpose and substance of the laws. As usual, a proviso – what I’m sharing with you amounts to thoughts (ideas) in process. And, as usual, what I say shouldn’t be taken as the final word on scripture.
At any rate, one way of thinking about the Law is that it serves as the moral or ethical code for Israel. Specifically, the requirements of the covenant include expectations of behaviour or lifestyle. Over the past semester, I’ve been taking a course on Professional Ethics. Without getting into too much detail, the class is looking at ethical theories of how pastors, in particular (and Christians, generally) should behave. I studied ethics in my undergraduate degree so much of this is familiar to me. At any rate, oversimplifying a lot, there are three basic kinds of theories about ethics and morality.
Deontological ethics has to do with rules, boundaries, and limits. This is the kind of ethics that says “it is wrong to do x.” Therefore, “lying is wrong.”
Consequentialist ethics says that, essentially, the ethical value of an action depends on the results or outcomes of that action. According to consequentialist ethics, whether or not lying is wrong depends entirely on the outcomes or the consequence. For example, if a Nazi officer asks you if you are hiding Jews in your cellar, it would not be wrong to lie if the outcome is to save their lives. Indeed, in this situation, it might actually be ethically wrong to tell the truth.
Now, these are the ethical theories that (again, very generally speaking) most of us are familiar with and work with on a day to day basis. And I tend to think that we apply these kinds of theories to understanding the Old Testament Laws.
We might say something along the lines of, “the Laws found in the Old Testament are the word of God (which, of course, is true) and therefore, must always be obeyed, no matter what.”
Or we might say something along the lines of, “God made a certain law because it’s good for people to follow them.” Here, I’m thinking of laws which forbade the eating of meat with the blood still in it, certain kinds of seafood, or some laws about property and etc. These are laws, we say, that are about keeping the peace and having a functioning society.
And these are perfectly reasonably conclusions – and they are certainly not wrong.
So, in short, we tend to apply a kind of absolutism (or legalism) to the laws, or we apply a kind of cause-and-effect, thinking to the laws.
But there’s a third (again, broadly speaking) type of ethical theory which we want to pay attention to – virtue ethics. Virtue ethics basically says that the moral obligation, and therefore the moral goal, is not found in actions, per se, but rather in the kind of person one is trying to become. Now there’s more to it than this (for example, what are the virtues and where do they come from), but essentially virtue ethics says that we should live and act in such a way that we become people of kindness, courage, prudence, fidelity, and love (and, of course, et cetera). It says that we should try to become better people, people of virtue. And in order to do that, we have to build into our lives certain habits that will lead to the development of those virtues. We have to practice it.
So, in short, I wonder if (at least some of) the laws that are given are not about “do this, don’t do that,” or “don’t do this because it’s bad for you (or others),” but are rather about the practice of becoming a certain kind of people. They are habits or practices that are meant to form Israel into the people of God.
Now some of those practices don’t make sense to us because they are from a different time and place. But they served a purpose – creating a people.
Firstly, a couple of notes in regards to our passage today.
The first thing I want to note about today’s passage is that it takes place, it’s given, immediately (in the text) after the second census. Or in other words, it takes place to, what is essentially, an entirely new group of people. So I wonder if there’s something here about a new people setting off to become a new people and beginning with God’s Law (I know it’s more complicated than this – the people didn’t just appear from nowhere…).
The second thing to notice is that the specific verses that we read today are part of a larger passage which takes us to the end of chapter 29 (29:40). Our passage takes us from daily offerings to weekly offerings (the Sabbath) to monthly offerings. Following this, we get offerings relating to the various feasts that Israel has been commanded to observe. These include:
- The Passover
- The Festival of Weeks
- The Festival of Trumpets
- The Day of Atonement
- The Festival of Tabernacles
In other words, we get instructions for daily, weekly, monthly, and annual offerings. Or, offerings covering every stage of life.
So What Now…?
So that brings us back, once again, to formation.
First, we’ve talked about this before, but I want to reaffirm that the offerings have to do with worship. They do have to do with atonement and right relationship with God and thanksgiving and all of the other things – but these have to do with worship.
I think a lot about worship – or I have, over the years, thought a lot about worship. And I’ve thought a lot about it from the perspective of music, because that’s where I’ve done the majority of my ministry. But I also think about the various different parts of worship.
And my fundamental conviction is that worship must be to God and for God. And I know that seems obvious, but oftentimes God only comes into the equation as an after-thought or as an addendum. I worry that, sometimes, we make worship about ourselves – what we want to get out of it – and add God in, simply to justify or endorse our own desires and inclinations. It’s an odd sort of thing when we “invite” God into worship, firstly, as if He needs our invitation, as if God isn’t always, everywhere present with His people. And secondly, it’s odd because if God isn’t there, if God isn’t the reason for, and the center of, what we’re doing, then it isn’t worship at all. So, what are we even doing?
And we worship because God deserves worship. We worship because He alone is worthy of glory, and honour, and praise. Worship is demanded because of the very nature of God. If His people won’t praise Him, the stones will cry out.
But does God need our worship? Does God desire our worship? I know that there’s a sense (a biblical sense) in which God desires our worship, but it’s not like God is an emo teenager sitting in a dark corner, waiting for somebody to pay attention to Him. God is complete within Himself – within the three persons of the trinity, God lacks nothing – human beings have nothing to offer Him.
So, the point that I’m making my way to is that, while worship is for God (and not for us), and while worship is demanded, required because of God’s very nature and we cannot (should not) help but worship He alone who deserves it, the purpose that worship serves is – I think, in one sense – very much about us.
And to clarify that further, what I mean is that worship is about our formation as persons and the people of God. That is, worship isn’t about filling our spiritual gas tank, and it isn’t about providing emotional release, and it certainly isn’t about entertainment. But it is very much (again, I think) about forming us into people who recognize, absorb, and live out the lordship of Jesus Christ. Worship is the (at least, “a”) central practice of spiritual formation in the life of God’s people.
Now I hope it’s obvious that this is my opinion – and it may very well change in the years to come. But I think this is why so many of the Laws in the Pentateuch have to do with worship. I think that this is why these commandments are included in this place in Numbers, as the Israelites, who have left behind all of the old generation, are about to enter into the land of Canaan. Because every day, week, month, and year are to revolve around and be anchored in worship.
And to center our lives around worship, properly, is fundamentally to center our lives around God. The God who made us, the God who saves us, and the God who alone can tell us and make us who we truly are.
So I suppose the question that I have – and it’s the same question that you’ve heard me pose probably a hundred times before – is, what kind of people are we becoming? As Israel was being led into a new and unknown place, we also are being led into a new and unknown place (because the future is always new and unknown). What kind of people does God want us to be? And how are we actually working to become that? More precisely, how are we responding to the word of God and the call of God to become the people of God?