Numbers 5-7; Psalm 41
So far in Numbers, we've picked up with the Israelites at Mount Sinai now able to enter God's presence. God instructed Moses on organising their camp.
God counted each tribe and assigned them specific locations around the Tabernacle. This strategic placement served two purposes. First, it provided a defensive layout as the Israelites moved into enemy territory. Second, it place God's presence, the tabernacle, at the centre of the camp and the centre of the Israelites lives and society.
We then read how the the Levites were divided into three sub-groups: the Gershonites, Kohathites, and Merarites. Each group had specific roles.
The Gershonites were responsible for the Tabernacle's fabrics, the Kohathites cared for the sacred furniture, and the Merarites managed the structure's frames and accessories. They were to take the care of the tabernacle very seriously.
In today’s chapters we see the pattern from Genesis continued, through some very specific instructions. We have to remember that the Israelites had many rules and instructions that are not included in the Torah. Because of this we need to meditate on why the rules that are included are included.
For example those that were leprous had to leave the camp. Why is that mentioned here? In yesterday’s reading we read how God’s ordering of the camp and charging the Levites mirrored God ordering creation and charging Adam and Eve. This particular passage mirrors Genesis 3 and the fall.
Those that are leprous have taken on something of the nature of death, admittedly not by choice. In Genesis 3 Adam and Eve chose death when they did things their own way. Just like Adam and Eve were sent out of the garden, here the leper is sent out of the camp. The same Hebrew word is used in both cases.
A theological point is being made. We need to maintain the integrity of this new creation, this new Garden of Eden that is reflected in the camp of Israel.
But there’s also an antidote to the mistake of Adam and Eve in the next set of instructions (Numbers 5:5-11) . If someone commits some sort of sin, they are to confess their sin and make it right.
What did Adam and Eve do when they sinned? They refused to acknowledge their wrong and blamed someone else. In this new creation God is setting up, there is now a way forward if the people screw up. Only if they choose rightly.
Now I have to be honest. I really struggle with the next passage, and I think it’s important to be real when we find different passages difficult. We see a rule given out that if a man suspects his wife of cheating, he can take her to the priest, the priest will write a curse on a price of paper, wash that curse off into some water, add some tabernacle dust from the floor, and force the woman to drink it.
If she’s not guilty, then great, nothing happens. If she is guilty, her body will swell, and her womb will waste away making her barren. I understand this high sense of wanting to maintain purity and holiness in the camp. We want to dissuade people from having affairs.
But for me, I struggle with how embarrassing and hurtful this would be for a woman who was innocent. She would feel hurt and betrayed by her husband, and no restoration was made there.
The important thing to remember when you are struggling with a passage in the Bible, is that the Bible is still true and still holy. The problem is either a) this is a different culture and time and so it seems completely foreign to us and we just can’t understand it at the moment, or b) we have a heart problem.
And this is something I wrestle with every time I read this passage, “God show me where I’m misunderstanding something or where my heart needs to change”. I thought I’d share that with you, so you know if there are bits in the Bible that you also struggle with, you can know you’re not alone.
But how does this passage fit in the retelling of Genesis? In Genesis 6, we read of how women had illicit sex with spiritual beings. The consequence of this was death to their wickedness through flood waters. Here we have instructions on what to do if a woman has illicit sex, and she must drink God’s judgement through cursed waters. If she has lived right, then she will have children. She will be fruitful and multiply as Noah did. If she has not, then her line will stop with her.
Putting aside the logistics of the practice for now, this passage read theologically can be seen as a reminder that if Israel remains committed to their God, as a woman to her husband, they will flourish. If they don’t, they will perish.
We then get a chapter on the Nazirite vow. This was a vow someone could make if they wanted to dedicate a period of time to God. They would live to a much higher standard of holiness before God. These people would then be on a similar level to the priests in terms of holiness and purity.
There are a couple of key Nazirites in Israel’s history as we go forward. One is the judge Samson, and the other is the prophet Samuel. One follows these rules and one breaks them, so it might be worth bookmarking this chapter, and rereading it when we get to their stories so you can see where they went right or wrong.
Where might this mirror Genesis? One of the instructions of the vow is to avoid all alcohol. This could be a reflection on Noah’s mistakes in Genesis 9 as he got drunk on wine.
Numbers 1-6, when read theologically, is the establishing of a new creation and establishing new practices and guidances that will help the people avoid the mistakes of the old creation.
And finally, sticking true to the book’s name, we get a list of numbers as the leaders of the twelve tribes each bring that tribe’s offering before God as the tabernacle is officially set up in the new camp of the Israelites.
The repetition serves to show the extravagant wealth the Israelites bring in the offering to God. He is worthy of the best.
This psalm is attributed to king David and falls into the category of lament psalm. It has all the features we have come to expect from a lament psalm; a complaint, a request for God to intervene, and a declaration of trust.
Psalm 41 is also significant because it is the last psalm of the first book in Psalms. The larger collection of Psalms is broken down into five smaller books. It’s not clear why the division between each book is made. Some argue it is to reflect the Torah that also has five books.
Either way, we can tell where one book ends, and another begins by the doxologies that end each section. A doxology is a liturgical hymn or declaration of praise that is used to end a service, prayer, or passage. The structure of the psalm is a chiasm where the passage reflects itself.
a) Psalm 41:1-3 - A declaration of trust in God
b) Psalm 41:4 - A prayer for mercy and healing
c) Psalm 41:5-9 - Lament over suffering
b) Psalm 41:10 - A prayer for mercy and healing
a) Psalm 41:11-12 - A declaration of trust in God
d) Psalm 41:13 - Concluding doxology to the first book of the psalms
The psalm opens with a declaration of trust in God. The Lord protects those who care for the poor. He keeps them alive, protects them from their enemies, and heals their illnesses.
This declaration of trust then leads the psalmist to bring his request to God. Have mercy on me and heal me. We can gather from the psalm that the psalmist is inflicted with some sort of illness, due to the number of references to health.
The psalmist then moves forward to bring his complaint, the suffering they have faced due to their illness. In this example, the worst thing isn’t the illness itself but how much the psalmist’s enemies are enjoying their illness.
While the psalmist is there, presumably wasting away, their enemies are rejoicing and tell everyone about it. They waiting for the psalmist to die, and even the psalmist’s friends have turned on them.
Having shared their complaint with God, the psalmist once again asks God to intervene. Have mercy on me and raise me up. And then psalmist returns once more to a declaration of trust. The psalmist know that God will delight in him, not his enemies. God will be the one to protect them.
Finally, this psalm, and first book of the wider collection, ends with a blessing to the Lord. In this psalm we can easily see the different stages of biblical lament, and how each one is important to processing difficult situations and emotions.
Anything you think I've missed? Maybe you've got a question that still needs answering. Send me a message over on my Instagram (@brynjoslin). I'd love to talk it through with you some more.