In the first part of Numbers 15, the LORD conveys to the Israelites, through Moses, information about some further detail on some offerings, including the kind of grain and drink offerings to give with various animal sacrifices. He tells them that the rules apply both to native born and aliens, "a lasting ordinance for the generations to come." And he told them again that the offerings to the LORD should come "from the first of your ground meal." These rules are followed with more rules for offerings for unintentional sins. "But anyone who sins defiantly...must be cut off from his people. Because he has despised the LORD's word and broken his commands...his guilt remains on him." The chapter ends with instructions from the LORD that they are to wear tassels on the corners of their garments, to remind them of the commands of the LORD.
Between the offering commands and the instructions to wear tassels, however, there's a story of a man "found gathering wood on the Sabbath day." They put him in to custody, unsure of what to do with him. The LORD said to Moses that the whole camp should stone him, so they put him to death.
Chapter 16 relates the story of a revolt against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, led by three Israelites named Korah, who was himself a Levite, and Dathan and Abiram of the tribe of Reuben. They denounced the way in which Moses and Aaron appeared to claim more holiness than the rest of the community. Dathan and Abiram also denounced Moses for having brought them out of a land of mil and honey "to kill us in the desert." Moses "fell facedown," and told them to put fire and incense in their censers the next morning, and that the man the LORD chooses "will be the one that is holy."
They gathered at the Tent of Meeting, and the LORD wanted to separate Moses and Aaron and then kill the whole assembly, but Moses and Aaron prayed that he not. So he told them to tell the assembly to move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram. Moses told everyone that they would know that the LORD had not sent him "if these men die a natural death and experience only what usually happens to men" but if the ground swallowed them, "then you will know that these men have treated the LORD with contempt." The ground split open and Korah, Dathan and Abiram, with their tents and households and possessions, were "swallowed up" and the the ground closed over them. Then the people fled, fearing that they would also be swallowed up, and the fire of the LORD consumed the 250 men who had joined the leaders and were offering incense. The LORD told Moses to have Aaron's son Eleazar take the censers out of the remains and hammer them into sheets to overlay the altar. "This was to remind the Israelites that no one except a descendant of Aaron should come to burn incense before the LORD." The next day, the grumbling continued, now against Moses and Aaron for having "killed the LORD's people." So the LORD sent a plague among them. Aaron offered incense and made atonement for them, and stopped the plague, but 14,700 people had died.
In chapter 17, the LORD told Moses to gather twelve staffs from the Israelites, one from each of the tribes, including Aaron's, and to put them in the Tent of Meeting, where he would make one of them bud. So they did this, and the next day, entering the Tent of Meeting, saw that Aaron's staff, representing the house of Levi, "had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds." So they kept Aaron's staff in the Tent of Meeting, but the people said to Moses, "We will die! We are lost, we are all lost! Anyone who even comes near the tabernacle of the LORD will die. Are we all going to die?"
Thoughts, questions, issues
- There will always be a challenge to leadership. In the case of the Israelites, the younger generation, led by three men, revolted against the leadership of Moses and the elders.
- There are passages in the Bible that make it very hard to worship GOD. This section of Numbers is one of them, as GOD comes across as petty, vengeful and almost sadistic. Does gathering wood on the Sabbath really warrant public stoning? Even if a man challenges the leadership of Moses, does that justify his wife and children and servants being buried alive? The responses to the provocation seem all out of proportion to those provocations.
How are we to understand these stories? What can we read out of them of relevance to us today?
If there's a better-known piece of scripture than the 23rd Psalm, I don't know what it is. I would guess that, of all the people in the world that know one Psalm by heart, the vast majority know this one. It's certainly the piece of scripture that I know best, and the prayer that I tend to pray in any times of strife and stress. "The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want."
I've used the NIV most of the time during this project, but I love the KJV Psalm 23. That's the one that I know and pray.
I've sung at least four different settings of this text, possibly as many as seven.
1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.