Numbers 8-10; Psalm 42
So far in Numbers we’ve read through the final instructions of God as the Israelites prepare to leave Mount Sinai. These instructions are carefully gathered together in Numbers to be a retelling of Genesis 1-9. An answer to what went wrong before as God begins a new creation with the Israelites.
We started with God ordering the camp just as he ordered creation in Genesis 1. Everything had it’s place and a purpose. We then saw God charge the Levites with the same charge he gave Adam and Eve over the garden. The Levites are to guard and keep both the tabernacle but also the rest of Israel. To be an example of God’s order and beauty and help spread it outwards.
Next came a series of instructions that seem randomly put together, but carried on this retelling of Genesis 1-9. The Israelites are told if they sin against one another they are to confess their sin and make it right. This is in contrast to Genesis 3 where Adam and Eve only sought to deflect and blame one another.
After that came a difficult to swallow test for adultery, reflecting the perverse sexual union between spiritual beings and human women we read about in Genesis 6. Then we read through the Nazirite vow that allows people to voluntarily live like the high priest. One of the key rules was abstinence from alcohol, as we think back to Genesis 9 when Noah got drunk.
Finally, the Israelites came together to make an offering to consecrate the tabernacle as the people prepare to go forward, dwelling with God.
Just as we saw the priests cleansed for their work in Leviticus 8, here in Numbers 8 we see the Levites being cleansed for their work. As the Israelites were leaving Egypt, God commanded them that every firstborn son would be his and would serve him.
We now see the Levites take over that role. Rather than every firstborn son, it will now be every Levite. So after the Levites were cleansed, all the people of Israel came and laid hands on them to transfer over that responsibility.
We’ve seen the power of laying on hands already. The priests would lay hands on the animals they were about to sacrifice to transfer the sin over to the animal. Here the Israelites lay hands on the Levites to transfer the responsibility of the firstborns.
As Christians we lay hands on the sick to transfer healing, or on people who are stepping into new responsibilities, such as new pastors, to transfer that charge and commission.
What we are ‘transferring’ is something of the presence of God in us over to the person we’re laying hands on. In many ways it’s got nothing to do with us, but it’s our way of saying we recognise God’s will in this area and so we allow the Holy Spirit in us to confirm it.
Next comes are story that I think is essential for us understanding how to read our Bibles. Most people see the Bible as an instruction manual for life. If you just follow the rules you’ll be fine. But what if the rules don’t make sense in a specific context?
We’ve already in Numbers 5:2 that if someone is unclean they have to be put outside the camp until they’re clean. But what happens if this during the Passover? If anyone doesn’t keep the Passover they are to be removed from the camp, but if you’re unclean you can’t keep the Passover.
So some unclean men came to Moses to ask them what to do, and Moses decided he would ask God. Why? Because the rules they had been given so far didn’t work in this context. They need new wisdom from God on how to best apply these rules here.
God’s reply? Those who are unclean during the Passover can keep the passover the following month. That way we maintain the holiness of the camp, and those that are unclean get opportunity to keep the passover.
Why do I think this story is so important? I believe there are many Christians who are sticklers for the rules, and if they were faced with a modern day example of this would tell the people that they would have to be cut off from the community because that’s what the rules intended.
Instead, if we read our Bible as wisdom literature we can gleam principles behind the instruction and then allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit on how to apply those principles in the contexts we find ourselves. This allows us to then offer grace and a path to those that might otherwise be stuck between a rock and a hard place.
At the end of Numbers we’re going to get another similar story, to show that this wasn’t a one off, so keep your eyes open for that.
We then get a cool description of the pillar of cloud and fire that hovers over the tabernacle. When the pillar rested on the tabernacle, the people set up camp. They would then stay camped there, days, weeks, or months, until the pillar lifted and then they would pack up and move on. This was the definition of living by faith. They only went where and when God directed them.
After this is instructions to make some trumpets and how to use them. These were highly practical, as they were used to keep the camp organised. They were used to help each tribe know when to set off in turn. They were also used to summon either the leaders of the tribes or the tribes themselves and when the people were at war to let them know what to do.
Finally, after all these instructions, the people set off from Sinai. This is it. The people have been brought out of Egypt. They have been given the rules and instructions on how to live.
They have been given the tabernacle and taught how to remain clean and pure so that God’s presence can dwell among them. They have been organised by tribe so that the camp can function and work efficiently.
Now, as this new, cleansed, and organised people, they set off for the future that God has in store for them. Things are looking good. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long before the people start to turn wrong again.
As we move into the second of five books in Psalms (Psalm 42-72) we start to see new authors introduced. This psalm is attributed to the sons of Korah. Korah was likely a Levite musician. His ‘sons’ here are either his direct sons or a group descended from him.
This psalm fits into the category of lament psalm, and is structured in two halves, with each half ending with the same refrain.
Psalm 42:1-4 - I desire God
Psalm 42:5 - Why are you downcast my soul
Psalm 42:6-10 - God feels close yet far
Psalm 42:11 - Why are you downcast my soul
The psalm opens with a desperate need of the soul. The psalmist needs God, just like a deer needs water. There is some Hebrew word play happening here. The Hebrew word for soul is nephesh (נֶ֫פֶשׁ).
Generally speaking, it means one’s whole being. But literally, it means throat. If this seems strange to you, think about the English saying, “I love you with all my heart”. When someone says this, they’re not actually speaking about the organ that pumps blood round their body. They mean all that they are.
In the same way, while the word nephesh literally means throat it also means a person’s entire being. So the word play here is that the psalmist is saying their throat/whole being is thirsty for God.
The psalmist is grieved by their need for God. It leads them to tears. In search of hope they remind themselves of good times in the past, when they would lead others in worship of God.
It’s at this point that the psalmist turns to themselves. They encourage themselves to continue to have hope. They will once again praise God, for he is there salvation.
Moving into the second section, the psalmist recognises that despite this, they do still feel downcast. So they continue to remind themselves of God’s faithfulness. Of how God used to feel like a wave constantly washing over them. How God’s steadfast love used to be a constant reminder.
And then the psalmist comes back to their current emotions, allowing themselves to feel them for a moment. Currently, it feels like God had forgotten them. They feel wounded, as though they are wasting away without God.
Then once more the psalmist speaks to themselves, encouraging themselves to take hope.
In this psalm we see the value in allowing ourselves to feel the range of our emotions while not allowing ourselves to be swept up by them.
Too often we fall into the trap of not wanting to feel our negative emotions, because we don’t want to or feel like we shouldn’t. Or we allow ourselves to get completely caught up by them.
Here the psalmist allows themself to feel their grief, but also balances it out with memories of God’s faithfulness, and ultimately commits themselves to continuing to hope in God.
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.