Blogging the Bible: This Ain’t No Math Textbook

It’s unfortunate, really. Almost a shame that it got stuck with the name, “Numbers.” It’s not about math. It has no complex formulas. And while it does start out by opening with a few chapters of “census data,” which counts out the sons of Israel and their tribes — the book of Numbers picks up steam. Fast. Because Numbers isn’t really about “numbers.”

The word “Numbers” comes from the Greek title for the book, “Arithmoi.” If it sounds like arithmetic, well, it’s because that’s where we get that word. But what a shame that a name connected to math is what stuck to the book of Numbers. The Hebrew title, meanwhile, is MUCH better, and much better at describing what follows in the words on its pages: “In the Wilderness.”

To me, that sounds more interesting. More inviting. And it has the added benefit of being truer to the content of this book we call “Numbers.” For that is what this book is about: Israel, wandering in the wilderness. And, as it turns out, Numbers is hard to read — and not because of the math. Because of the mess. Israel is truly in the wilderness, struggling to find its way — and complaining most of the time.

Israel struggles with Moses. Israel struggles with her situation. She struggles with manna, having to live by bread alone.

But most of all, Israel struggles with God.

And in the midst of the struggle, there is a lot of death. It seems as if there are bodies strewn all over the desert. For me, this is the hardest part of getting In The Wilderness; all this death. I can’t explain it; all I know to say is this: Israel was being formed in the wilderness, and the book of Numbers — far from being a book we want to avoid, ends up being a book about the human condition. Will Israel trust God when it has to live day-by-day, moment-by-moment? Will Israel follow God when it can’t see the outcome? In short, will Israel find its identity in God, and God alone? In that regard, In The Wilderness is the perfect name for this book, and the perfect setting for this book. For it’s in the wilderness, stripped of everything and anything that it wants to hold onto, Israel has to decide: Is God really enough?

Someone has pointed out that the one thing where the title “Numbers” fits is when we look at how the book is laid out. The book includes two censuses (censi?). The first (chapters 1 & 2) introduces the generation of the Israelites that chooses not to trust God; and the second (chapter 26) introduces the generation that ends up taking the land. The first is largely faithless; the second seems ready to go where God is taking them.

In short, Numbers is a book about us — and what we do when we are in the wilderness. Do we trust God, or not? When life is rough, do we trust that God is at work, even in the desert? It’s not that we can’t doubt, or get discouraged. Ultimately, I think, the problem of the first generation is not their dissent, but their distrust. They simply won’t trust God in the midst of their doubts, their disagreements, and their dissent. And so they choose to turn away from God, In The Wilderness, where, in fact, they need God the most.

In the end, that’s the challenge — and the opportunity — for when you and I are In The Wilderness. Do we, in the midst of the struggles, trust God — all the way through the Desert Days?

Blogging the Bible – What Do We Do with Leviticus?

Let’s face it. Leviticus is one of the toughest books in the Bible. It’s tough to read, it’s tough to learn from, and it’s tough to know what to do with it. I mean, the first 9 chapters are about animal sacrifices. When was the last time you made an animal sacrifice?

So, if we are going to find meaning in Leviticus, we have to step back and consider what I believe to be the main question of the book: What does it mean to be a whole-hearted member of God’s family? If our primary identity, what marks us in life, is our identity as God’s children, what does that mean? What should it look like?

Leviticus 19 contains a number of laws and guidelines for the people of Israel. Everything from “don’t lie” (verse 11) to “don’t pervert justice” (v15) to “don’t plant your field with two kinds of seeds” (v19). How do we, as Jesus followers in 2015, plow through all of this (pun intended)?

Well, the starting place is the phrase: “I am the Lord your God.” This phrase, or one similar to it, appears fifteen times in Leviticus 19. It stands as a continual reminder that God is our foundation. Our life, and our living, are rooted in the God who calls us by His name. He is the source of our purpose, our calling, our life.

The next thing to notice is that Leviticus 19 (as someone has pointed out) can be divided into 3 sections — three ways God’s people were to be holy:

  1. 19.1-8: they were set apart to belong to God
  2. 19.9-18: they were set apart by how they treat others
  3. 19.19-37: they were set apart: by being different than the peoples around them

In other words, Leviticus 19 tells us some really important things — things that still apply to us today as Christians. We belong to God, and because that is our primary identity, we then live like it. Now, it’s going to take some wisdom as we read Leviticus, discerning how to apply it to our lives. Because, no, I’m not worried about planting tomatoes next to green peppers. And I am pretty confident I have no need to sacrifice animals (as long as you don’t count the mousetraps I’ve put up in the basement).

But I can read Leviticus 19 and see in that chapter the ongoing call to be set apart to God, and set apart with my family and my church family, and with my neighbors wherever I meet them. For the most important thing, as Leviticus 19.18 and Matthew 22.36-40 both describe, is to be marked, in all those relationships, by love.

Blogging the Bible – The Story of Joseph

I have a daughter who turns 17 tomorrow. Was it really all that long ago she was a half-bald, half-blonde preschooler who enjoyed neatly lining up her markers, and then using them systematically, one-by-one, to make her work of art? Was it really ten years ago that she would stand in the hallway in our house, repeating the name of her favorite person, when said person was gone (said person, by the way, was mom). Can she really be 17 and making college visits and beginning to dream about what’s next?

When Joseph was 17, he had some pretty big dreams. They involved his brothers bowing down to him; you can imagine how well this went over with those brothers. But his dreams were even grander than that; he even sees the sun, moon, and stars giving him honor.

But those dreams came true. You can read about it in Genesis 37-50, where Joseph faces the wrath of his brothers, as well as a vengeful woman, but he keeps the faith. And, in his case, his integrity keeps opening doors — and by those open doors God uses Joseph to save those same brothers — brothers who would become the people of Israel. The Bible tells us that each of the brothers would have a part to play in this new nation; that 12 families within the Family of Israel would be set apart, and given a name. And where does the name of each family-tribe come from? From each of the 12 brothers.

Except one. That one? Joseph.

Huh? How is that the one brother who shows integrity, who trusts in God through all circumstances, how come he doesn’t become a part of the Family of the 12 Tribes? Well, because, he gets TWO tribes. While in Egypt, Joseph has two sons, Ephraim and Mannaseh — and those two sons become a part of the 12 Families that make up the Family of Israel. It’s as if God, for all time, honors Joseph by giving him a double blessing.

But even more than that, something else jumps out at me. Who is mom to these two boys? Or, even more interesting, who is their grandpa? We find that out in Genesis 41.50-52. Their mom was Asenath, and their granddad was Potiphera (not to be confused with Potiphar). And what was Potiphera’s occupation? He was a priest of On, an Egyptian god. Which means that within the people of Israel, two of the tribes trace their lineage to boys who were half-Jew, half-Egyptian — and whose mother’s lineage was rooted in worship of other gods.

In other words, nestled deep into scripture is this reality: even as God was calling to Himself the people Israel — even as God’s work began with them — there was this glimpse that God’s grace and calling would reach all people. For from the very beginning, nestled into the foundation of the People of God, are two tribes (not just one!) of mixed background. From the very beginning, God gives a glimpse of His plan — to call all people to Himself. And when we fast-forward to the end of the Bible, we read in Revelation 21.12-13 that the New Jerusalem, the City of God, has 12 gates. And written on those 12 gates are the names of the 12 tribes of Israel. Names, for all eternity, that show: God’s love reaches Israelites and Egyptians. Europeans and Eritreans. Chinese and Chileans. People like you and me, and people very different from you and me. In other words: ALL people.

Blogging the Bible: Genesis 1-11

This week, I hope you are joining me as we begin to read through the story of the Bible. We are starting at the beginning (a very good place to start), in the book of Genesis. It starts with a familiar story – Creation!

But right off the bat, something jumps out. Two verses in, we read that a formless void exists when God begins His creative work. In short, God makes Something out of Formless Nothingness. Before God – chaos and meaningless. When God begins to work – purpose and beauty. And Genesis 1 then unfolds that beauty.

There are a lot of arguments about how to understand Genesis 1; how to interpret the seven days of creation; and the means by which God created. But the most important thing to remember is that God is behind all that is meaningful. In fact, when God steps in is precisely when it takes on meaning. The purpose of Genesis 1 isn’t to give us science, or answer 21st century questions. The purpose of Genesis 1 is to give us faith, and answer timeless questions: Where did we come from? And why? And what are we supposed to do?

And what we are supposed to do is live a purpose-filled life in relationship with our Creator and with each other. That was the invitation to Adam & Eve. But they decided that reaching for what they should not have was more important than receiving the gifts God had given them. In other words, they used their freedom to do wrong – wrong that harmed them, and their relationship with God.

So they leave the garden, and find that life on their terms isn’t as exciting as they thought it would be. And they have a son named Cain who follows in their footsteps. And he takes his freedom even further – and kills his brother. He asks, Am I my brother’s keeper? Well, he should have been; as should all of us, though it is much easier to blame our brother, or God, or circumstances, for what is wrong with us and our world.

So, to this point, the first humans use freedom to fracture their relationship with God and with each other. But along comes Noah; surely he will make things right. You know, the ark, animals, rainbows, and all that. But did you notice the part of the story that we often overlook – the part that never makes it into the children’s Bibles? It’s the part where he gets drunk – naked and unashamed of his misuse of God’s good creation. Even though God has restarted everything with Noah, he still fails – just as his ancestors did.

And then, one more story in Genesis 1-11 stands out: the Tower of Babel. In this story, we see people coming together to stand up to God; deciding that they can reach God on their own. In essence, they say to themselves, We can make our way to God on our terms, and by the work of our hands.

Where have I heard that before? Only in every commercial and in most every promise made by the makers of whatever gadget will save us now. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it, the Babel-onians try to reach God based on their technological ability, not their moral character. It’s not that God is opposed to our technology and creativity; it’s that we so often get things backward. Our technology doesn’t lead us UP to God; instead, our accomplishments must be rooted in the life we have IN God. For the folks of Babel, they sought salvation by self-styled accomplishment, rather than by self-sacrificial surrender.

So, here’s the scenario, according to Sacks: Adam & Eve lose Eden; Cain is left to wander; Noah descends into drunkenness; the tower goes unfinished. Other than that, everything looks great!

Perhaps in all of this is the reminder that the human condition hasn’t changed. We still misuse our freedom and thus fracture our relationship with our Creator. We still ask, skeptically, Am I really my brother’s keeper? And we still seek to build a spiritual life on our own accomplishments.

The Bible is nothing if not realistic. And it begins, in its very first chapters, addressing the stark reality of the human condition. Even so, we have a God who does not give up on us. After Noah’s flood, God makes a covenant. A promise for life. God says, “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants, and with every living creature…” to never again destroy the world. The rainbow will be a sign of the promise that I have made this “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

The Bible tells us the reality of our situation, which goes all the way back to the beginning. But it also tells us that, even more real still, is the faithfulness and mercy of our God. So, remember that truth. When you see a rainbow. (And when you don’t.) And allow that faithfulness to transform you, helping you to use the freedom you’ve been given to love God and to love others.