The Story So Far, Week 10 – Balaam and the Spirit

Rembrandt, Balaam and His Ass, 1626

First off, we’ve now completed double-digit weeks of Year in the Bible! Congratulations.

Back in the Old Testament, Numbers slows its pace down to tell the reader about the diviner, Balaam. He’s known for his abilities to discern spirits, speak oracles, and generally relate to the spiritual world. King Balak wants to use Balaam’s abilities to bring down curses upon the peoples of Israel. They are great in number and are looming at Balak’s doorstep. But God will not allow his people, whom he has blessed, to be cursed by Balaam.

Because of God’s will, Balaam says he will not go, but Balak pushes him again and again. Balaam eventually goes, but only once God allows him, and even then, he has a stern message for the diviner on the road.

Balaam is riding his old donkey, with which he seems to have shared many rides. But on this ride the donkey refuses to continue. An angel of God stands in their way. The donkey won’t succumb to Balaam who tries to drive him on becase the donkey knows better. Balaam gets angry until God opens the donkeys mouth to speak to him and then opens his eyes to see the angel. The great irony of this story is that the person who is known in the land as being able to see spiritual things is here blind, while a mere donkey can see what is right before them. How humbling for the diviner, and how revealing to us how spiritual understanding is given. God has to give it to us.

And that is what we see given to the whole church in Acts. God gives his own Spirit to the people and they are given speech, like the donkey, and they are shown all spiritual truth. God’s Spirit lives in believers now and that has changed everything.

Just think of the implications. Take a moment.

To look at one example, think about the selection of the disciple who replaces Judas. The disciples cast lots. After Pentecost, when the Spirit comes upon the church, do you see lots cast again?

It is amazing to live in a time in which we all have greater access than so-called diviners like Balaam, for God has made his dwelling place among us and in us by his Spirit.

Minimal Art for Numbers

Do you know those motivational posters folks hang up in their offices that say things like “ACHIEVEMENT” or “COURAGE”? Well, this edition of the minimal art from the Bible taken from the site, Being RKP, could have hung on the walls of the people in Numbers. What are we doing in the desert? What is all this wandering for? Then they look at this poster and buck up. It’s an Israelite motivational tool.

MILK AND HONEY, “Taste and See that the Lord is Good.”

As hokey as those posters can get, it is good to be reminded of our purpose and our goals. We should not walk aimlessly through life, but should always hold before us the hope that we have in Christ and seek to be obedient to his call upon our lives. The Israelites lose sight of goals and of their past, and in so doing are tossed about by the influences of the nations surrounding them.

What Would You Do? Joshua and Caleb Edition

The Israelites were LOST for 40 years.

The judgment on the Israelites for their fear and disobedience in regards to entering the promised land was that they’d wander in the desert for forty years. No one of that generation would see that abundant land, none but Caleb and Joshua. Instead it would be for the next generation to take possession of it for themselves. We read through this wandering in the second half of Numbers, watching how the old guard makes way for the new.

This may be a bit of review of last week, but this question came to mind this morning in a small group Bible study I’m in: What would you have said to the people to convince them to follow God and go into the promised land? If you were Caleb and Joshua, the two spies who trusted God’s provision, what would you have said to the people? How could you have tried to help Israel avoid the wandering we see in this week’s readings?

I think the way we answer that will also help us to know how to speak to fear in our own lives. How do we encourage trust in God in the face of fear? How do we follow when the road seems hard? These are the questions for Israel, and they are questions for today. I’d love to hear in the comments or via email what you would say if you were Caleb or Joshua.

Week 10 – Numbers and Acts

Balaam, the Angel and the Ass; Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (from Wikipedia)

Welcome to Week 10.

We’re back to just reading two books this week as the Psalms are taking a week off. But in its place we have another hearty week of Numbers and seven chapters of Acts.

In Numbers we have some well known stories like when Moses brought forth water from a rock, a bronze snake that heals the Israelite people, and a donkey that talks. We finish this week as the Israelites come to the end of their wandering and are readying themselves to enter the promised land (again).

Acts is a continuation of Luke, written by the same author, continuing the story of what happens once Jesus is raised. It is often described as Acts of the Holy Spirit, and that is what it is. You’ll see the way that God’s Spirit empowers the early church and the disciples to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. We’ll read about Pentecost, healings, opposition from the Jewish establishment, and Stephen’s wonderful testimony before the Sanhedrin and subsequent stoning. Stephen is considered the first Christian martyr.

Hope you enjoy this week. If you have questions or comments, send them this way and I’ll do my best to respond and share with everyone else. I’d love to have you join me this summer at either reading groups, which you can find more information about at the above link. Some things take breaks as school is out in the summer, but you can always find yourself welcome at a reading group.

Story So Far, Week 9

Christ of Saint John of the Cross by Salvador Dalí, 1951.

God has a special claim among his people of the first born. Then in Numbers 3 he makes an arrangement that I’m sure the tribes were happy about. Instead of having to give over their own firstborns, all the tribes will be represented by the Levites. They will consecrated to the Lord in the place of the children of the rest of Israel.

But this is not the only stand in we see in God’s story. Jesus is arrested and accused of crimes he did not commit. He alone in history is the true innocent one. Yet, in Luke 23, when the people call for someone to be pardoned they cry out for Barabbas. They cry out, “Crucify” to the innocent, and demand release for the guilty.

We can see ourselves in this story, taking the place of Barabbas. We are the guilty ones who deserve the punishment standing beside the innocent Jesus. But we receive the pardon because of Christ’s sacrifice. It is as though God says, “Take my own firstborn instead of these people who deserve the consequences of their sin.” Christ suffers the punishment that we deserve and stands in on behalf of God’s people. Because of this substitution sinners are forgiven and are reconciled to God.

Having completed such a work in Christ, we now press on to read in Acts, and we will see what God will do to care for and grow his church once Jesus has left the people. It is a church made possible only because of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, who stands in on our behalf.

A Closer Look at the Israelite Camp and How it Looks Ahead to the Work of Christ

Here is a video that both describes and shows what the encampment of Israel may have looked like. It continues on into more detail about the tabernacle and the inner rooms. Then it jumps ahead to Jesus day and the temple. We read this week in Luke 23 that at the death of Jesus the great curtain that divides the holy of holies from the rest of the temple was torn in two, exposing that sacred space. This signifies the work of Jesus on the cross as removing such a barrier. We now have access because our sin has been paid for by Christ and we all can enter the presence of God’s holiness.

Deferred-Promise Land

In Numbers the people rebel against God’s plan to lead them into the promised land because of the report brought back to them by the twelve spies. On the one hand it is a land said to be flowing with milk and honey, but it is also a land whose occupants make the Israelites fearful. They say that they were like grasshoppers compared to the inhabitants.

What follows is not unusual for God’s people when facing adversity: grumbling and rosy descriptions of slavery in Egypt. They are angered that their God–who has done great and marvelous things for them–has led them to such a great and marvelous land. Well, that’s not how they said it. They’re upset that God’s plan doesn’t appear easy. The people are afraid of the inhabitants and do not trust that God will continue to lead them, be with them, and deliver them.

They have a new plan, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” After all, they had fish in Egypt. (Num 11:5).

When Caleb and Joshua, two of the twelve spies, try to dissuade them the people are so angered that they intend to stone them. They won’t hear any challenge to their cowardice. Not until God comes to speak to them. Because of their disobedience God pronounces judgment. The promised land is still promised for the people of God, but it is not to be seen by the current generation. None of the men but Caleb and Joshua may enter. Instead of God delivering this land to his people, the people will die wandering in the wilderness, spending one year for each day the spies were in the land, until the next generation is ready to enter.

I wonder what blessings of God we miss out on because of our disobedience. I wonder what God wants to give to his people that he might reserve for another generation. This is not just a selfish consideration, but look at how Caleb and Joshua, who acted righteously, still felt some of the consequences. How might our sins bring collateral damage on those around us or how might our sins limit other’s reception of God’s blessing?

God is never through with his people, not here in Numbers and not ever. But there still is discipline for his children. I hope our trust can overcome our fear when God calls us to follow him.

Week 9

A Plague Inflicted on Israel While Eating the Quails; as in Numbers 11:31-34; illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible; image courtesy Bizzell Bible Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries (from Wikipedia)

The Old Testament begins with book names that can sometimes obscure what they’re about. But it is pretty simple so far. Genesis was the beginning. It was the beginning of creation, of God’s story of dealing with that creation, and the beginning of his very own people. Exodus was Israel leaving slavery in Egypt. Leviticus is the law for the levites, continuing the law given to the people in Exodus. Now we come to Numbers. What’s that about? Want a hint?

Numbers 1:2, “Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel…”

That’s right there in the beginning of the book as God commands Moses to take a census, to number the people. It is a continuation of the story from Exodus, which began with their delivery from slavery, as God now numbers his people and prepares them to journey into the promised land.

Meanwhile in the New Testament…

Luke finishes this week and offers another opportunity, after already having read through John, to contemplate the surprising ending to the gospel story. It may not surprise us now, as we have heard it and read it before. But the people surrounding Jesus did not expect him to go to the cross. Who would expect a messiah, God incarnate, one who had such power, to be crucified like a criminal? Read it slowly with a renewed appreciation for the great humility of God to submit himself to such punishment to save the very people who deny him and yell, “crucify him!”

Also, keep in mind that what follows next week is the book of Acts, written by the same person. Try to keep Luke in mind once we begin Acts to see how they connect.