Take a number? Maybe not. (Numbers)

One could easily decide from reading thecomplaint-department-grenade Book of Numbers that God does not deal well with complaints and that customer service may not be God’s calling. Responding to complaints about lack of food and water, a lack of leadership or the folly of fighting a losing battle, in the Book of Numbers, God gets angry and sends fire, plagues, leprosy, curses and poisonous serpents.

God’s personality is revealed to have some very unpleasant aspects in Numbers.

● God seems overly concerned with acquiring material goods. On the occasion of the dedication of the sanctuary altar, God receives

-12 silver plates

-12 silver basins

-12 gold dishes

-36 bulls

-72 rams

-72 male lambs

-12 male goats. (Num. 7:84-88.)

● God is high-maintenance. The Tent of Meeting requires the full-time attention of 8,580 people (the number of Levites per Nu. 4:48). (Num. 8:19) And then there are the priests, whose only job is to tend the sanctuary within.

● God doesn’t have much regard for women. Women suspected of infidelity are to be tried by ordeal, (Num. 5:19) and women can be parties to a contract (take an oath) only if there husband or father agrees. (Num. 30)

● God is a strict disciplinarian, imposing the death penalty for failure to keep the Sabbath. (Num. 15:35)

● God can be murderous. God kills…

• The 10 scouts who explored Canaan and gave a false bad report about the    desirability of the land, hoping it would dissuade the people from taking on a losing battle of conquest. (Num. 14)

• The 250 Levites who aspired to be priests and who thought the leadership should be more egalitarian. (Num. 16)

• The 14,700 Israelites who protested the killing of the rebel Levites (Num. 16),

• The 24,000 men who died in the plague of God’s anger over Israelite men consorting with Moabite women and their gods.

• The 603,550 men, plus Levites, women and children whom God enticed out of  Egypt with a promise of land, but who were never allowed to set foot on that land  for the offense of having believed someone else’s lie. (Numbers 14.) They had to remain in the wilderness until every last one of them died, even if it took 40 years,  which it did.

I cannot think of a way to make this God look friendly, godly or Jesus-like. The stories in Numbers challenge our image of God. They are a good reminder that we are not supposed to have or worship any images of God and certainly not the image that emerges from Numbers. Worship of a murderous God has tragically allowed us to imagine that some wars and some killings are holy.

There is also no way I cannot be offended by God’s disregard of property rights and nationhood. Why is it okay for the Israelites to invade, conquer and occupy other nations? On the other hand, maybe we are supposed to feel offended. Maybe the earliest editor  or author of Numbers felt the same ethical ambivalence about the fact that  in a zero-sum world, for the “have-nots” to become “haves”, the “haves” must lose something.

But fundamentally, Numbers is about complaints and rebellions – the protests which arise when we are pushed beyond the limits of our patience, our endurance and our courage. That is what happens in a wilderness: when we are pushed beyond the limits of our patience, our endurance and our courage. We’ve all been there.

The moral of the story is not “don’t complain.” We complain and rebel when our sense of justice is offended – when we believe we or someone we care about is not being treated fairly. A sense of justice is a good thing to have, and sometimes complaining and rebelling is the right thing to do.

Leaders, like Moses, often get caught in the middle – between the righteous complaint and the Boss. It is a meditation to watch Moses maintain his relationship with God, with the people and even with his brother and sister even though  each of those parties have conflicting agendas and needs. Leadership is not an easy thing.

Lectionary Notes

Pentecost A Numbers 11:24-30 God’s spirit on the 70 elders & Eldad & Medad. “Would that all God’s people were prophets.”
Lent 4B Numbers 21: 4-9 The people complain about no food; God’s sends poisonous serpents. The bronze serpent on the pole cures those who are bitten.
Proper 21B Numbers 11: 4-6, 10-16, 24-29 The story of the 70 elders, responding to Moses’ request for leadership help, omitting the parallel request made by the people for more meat.  God promises to send the people so much meat that it will come out of their nostrils. The 70 elders, similarly, were too much. Consequently, they are not heard from again.

Three readings – only two stories, and the story that is told twice (70 prophesying elders) is told without the parallel story which interprets it. With the parallel story (about the people getting more meat than anyone would want), the tag line (“Would that all God’s people were prophets.”) takes on a completely ironic and different meaning.

On to Deuteronomy.