Into the Wilderness
Numbers 21:4-9 (Lent B, Week 4)
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live (Numbers 22:4-9, NRSV).
Where in the world did this reading from the Hebrew Scriptures come from? For the most part we can blame Jesus. In today’s Gospel reading he refers to this story when he says, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” At first it appears that the lectionary is proof-texting: they threw this story in this week because of what was said in the New Testament. Of course the assumption is that whoever is preaching is going to shy away from the crazy, whacked out Old Testament reading and go straight to the Gospel reading where Jesus is talking about God’s love. But we all know me better than that. I think there is more going on with this reading than just being chosen because of the allusion Jesus made in John’s gospel.
This reading also looks out of left field when compared to the other readings from the Hebrew Scriptures for this season of Lent. The readings for this Lent are devoted to covenant. We began with God’s covenant with Noah then moved onto God’s covenant with Sarah and Abraham. Last week we looked at the 10 commandments which were the beginning of God’s covenant with Israel. Next week we will be reading from the prophet Jeremiah about the new covenant God will institute after the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon. But this week we have this passage from Numbers about God sending fiery serpents among a complaining and whining people, and we wonder what in the world this has to do with covenant. Quite a lot actually once we consider what the book of Numbers is about and where the people are in their covenant with God at this point.
If you open to the book in the Bible you understand why it is called Numbers: we begin with a riveting census of the number of men above the age of 20 who can go to war followed by another riveting census of the Levite men who will take care of the tabernacle and other holy objects in the wilderness. In the wilderness is the Hebrew name for this book, which I think much more accurately reflects the theology of Numbers.
In the wilderness is where the Israelites will spend this entire book. They begin at Sinai after the covenant has been established. The first few chapters establish how the Israelite camp will be set up, and how they will order themselves when God commands them to move. Other instructions are given then we are told that Israel obeys all God has commended and they pack up and head out for the Promised Land. It seems like a pretty good start. It doesn’t last for long.
The people immediately start complaining and different judgments from God start happening in response. This will be a theme through Numbers: the people rebel and complain and God disciplines and punishes. Another theme through Numbers is who should be the rightful leaders of Israel? Not everyone thought it should be Moses, not even Moses’ own sister and brother: Miriam and Aaron. 70 elders do help Moses govern the people, but the question becomes should Moses be the one at the top. To be fair there are times when even Moses doesn’t think he should be the one in charge. But God thinks otherwise. There are three leadership rebellions in Numbers beginning with Miriam and Aaron’s challenge, and in all three stories God makes it clear that Moses’ is her chosen leader.
In between these episodes of complaining and rebellion are chapters 13-14. The entire book of Numbers swings around these two chapters and the people’s greatest rebellion and failure in the book. This rebellion isn’t against Moses: it’s against God.
The people have come to the borders of the Promised Land and spies were sent to scope out the land before the conquest began. The find everything as God promised: it is a land flowing with milk and honey. But the people of the land are great warriors, even a couple of tribes of warrior giants remain in the land. Of the 12 spies sent only two encourage the people to obey God, to trust God and go up and take the land: Caleb and Joshua. The other 10 spies give a bad report and tell the people if they go up they will die. The people listen to the 10, and they refuse to obey God and enter the land promised to them.
God does not take the rebellion well and turns the people’s own words into their punishment. The people say they will die fighting to take the land. No, God says, they will die in the wilderness because no one in the first generation to leave Egypt will enter the land. They say their children will be taken as booty and be slaves to the people who are currently occupying the land. No, God says, their children will be the ones to enter the land and live on its abundance. The spies spied out the land for 40 days, so Israel’s punishment will be to wander in the wilderness for 40 years while the older generation dies out and the younger generation, which will be listed in a new census in Numbers 26, become adults.
Needless to say, the people are immediately grief stricken and repent over their lack of faith and rebellion. They decide that no they will obey God and take the land. But it is too little too late. Moses warns them that he, the Ark of the Covenant and God will not go with the people, but once again they do not listen. The go up and are immediately repelled and defeated by the land’s occupants. They wander in the wilderness for the next 40 years where more rebellions and complaining happen and that is where our story picks up.
This story is one of the last complaining stories in Numbers. It has been 40 years. The last of the old generation is dying off, and few more of them die off in this story, and the next generation is getting ready to take their place. In the previous chapter both Miriam and Aaron die. Even Moses disobeyed God and will not be allowed to enter the land with the people. His second in command Joshua will lead the next generation into the land promised by God.
And here’s where covenant comes in. The covenant was made on Sinai 40 years ago to a generation that is almost dead. The new generation has grown up in the wilderness hearing about the covenant God made with her people. But they are not there yet. It’s been 40 years, the promises have not been fulfilled, and they are still eating manna: “this miserable food” that after 40 years they’ve grown to detest. When will it change? When will they get there? When will the covenant and the promises be fulfilled?
To date we’ve just looked at the high points of covenant: the promises made to Noah and to Sarah and Abraham. The giving of the 10 commandments after God delivered the people out of Egypt parting the Red Sea. But covenant isn’t just about the high points. Covenant is also about the daily slog. It’s also about staying faithful to this God when there isn’t much of a reason to be faithful. The book of Numbers is the daily grind of what it means to be in covenant with this particular God. It’s not easy. The one thing the Bible makes abundantly clear is that life with God is not easy. My favorite C. S. Lewis quote is on this topic. From God in the Dock Lewis says: “As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
This is what Israel is discovering in the Book of Numbers. Life with God will not be easy. Yes, God did deliver them from bondage in Egypt but God demands obedience and absolute fidelity in return. And as all of us know that is easier said than done.
This is a very relevant reading for this time in Lent. Week 4. I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking, “Good God will Lent never end” at this point. But this is life with this God. We get a microcosm of this life every year during this season as we consciously remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return, and we remember that no one is without sin, and we need not only to repent but also reconcile with those who have been hurt by our sinful actions. It’s part of our daily life with this God who calls us to be a holy people, obedient to her alone.
Fiery serpents probably aren’t going to erupt out of the ground when we sin, but there is a very timely reminder for us in this story regarding sin. God didn’t take away the snakes. The snakes were the consequences of the people’s sin, and God did not deliver them from those consequences. God did give the people a way to live with them. That is another part of our Lenten journey. Yes, sin is forgiven, but we still have to deal with consequences of our own sinful actions; they don’t just disappear. There are apologies and reconciliations. There are changes—sometimes painful changes that have to be made.
We may need the help of others to repent and change: 12 step programs or a good psychiatrist. Part of life with this God is dealing with the consequences of sin, but God doesn’t leave us alone as we deal with those consequences just as she didn’t leave the Israelites alone. Strength and courage we didn’t know we have springs from our guts. Friends call and say, “Have you thought about this?” A line from a sermon or a hymn gives renewed energy to take that extra step toward the healing and forgiveness we need.
At the end of the day I like this reminder from Numbers that this journey with God is a long one. It’s a long obedience. It might have something to do with being raised in evangelical churches that put more emphasis on dramatic conversion stories that ignore those like me who have lived and walked with God most of our lives and don’t have these stories. I have no dramatic conversion story. I’ve always known God was there. I’ve always walked with God, and it hasn’t been easy. It’s been a long haul as it was for the Israelites in the wilderness, and I’m sure it will continue to be that way. The testimony of Numbers is that this life, this long obedience, is normal. It takes a long time to get life with God right, and that’s OK because God never gives up on us.
Even in the midst of the rebellions and complaining in Numbers there are these passages of how the people will live in the land once they get there. It’s a little confusing when you’re reading through Numbers to see the action come to an abrupt stop as all of these laws pertaining to priests, Levites and purity codes—such as how to become ritually pure after you touch a dead body—are described in exacting detail. But these are reassurances to these people who are trying to figure out how to walk with this God and getting it more wrong than they get it right. God never gives up on them. Most of these passages begin with the words: “When you come into the land.” WHEN you come into the land, not if. The people might have trouble being faithful to God, but God never has trouble being faithful to the people she has called.
We may have problems being faithful to this God who has called us, but this God has no trouble being faithful to us. And for all of our long hauls—our long obedience—that is good news.