Numbers 30 – 32, Psalm 50, Luke 8
God and Moses in Recovery: Anger Management Problems
Numbers 30 – 32
Numbers 30 tells us that “This is what the Lord has commanded. When a man makes a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself to a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” (Numbers 30:2) This used to be true in the United States and many parts of the world. This is a teaching and a practice that we need to reclaim. This was not Moses’s teaching. This was God’s command, which Moses reiterated.
Today, a man’s word means little. It used to be a man’s word and his hand shake were his bond. You could bank on them. Today, they are meaningless. Unless something is in writing and witnessed by others, it is meaningless in court. Many people refuse to stand by their word. These same people question why we need religion. The world is full of people who claim to be “spiritual, but not religious.”
Spirituality is a major part of our religious quest, but it lacks sticking power. It has no commandments that it must follow, no commitments that it must honor. If I am spiritual but not religious and my marriage is no longer fun, I can easily walk away from it because to feel more spiritual and indulge in more good spiritual vibes. It is our religion and our vow before God that makes us honor our marriage commitment, honor the Sabbath and keep God’s commandments. Civil society depends on good virtue and religion being practiced, not just pursuing our individual spiritual quest.
Reckless practice of the law and the massive use of lawyers to sue, especially in circumstances that have no merit, are partially to blame. Just because we can sue, does not mean that we ought to sue. Whatever happened to integrity and honor and doing the right thing. I recall a couple in our extended community who sued his son’s school after their son and his friend where expelled from the school for good reason. The parents hired three lawyers to defend their son and won a handsome settlement, because the school did not follow their protocol exactly. In the process, this couple destroyed their own integrity, set a terrible example for the community and sent a terrible message to their son. If you mess up, we will hire lawyers and bail you out. Is that what our culture has stooped to doing?
The flip side of this teaching on vows concerns the pledges of women. It is hard to appreciate how much progress women have made in American society. After returning from Africa, I was shocked by the difference of how women are treated in the United States and how they are treated in East Africa. The majority of sermons that I heard preached in Kenya were rooted in the Old Testament, which speaks of tribes and a patriarchal culture. The Old Testament lent Scriptural support to a culture where men dominated and often lorded over women.
Numbers 30:3-4 tell us that if a woman makes a vow, it shall stand. There are, however, exceptions. If her father expresses disapproval at the time he hears of her vow, her pledge shall not stand. Likewise, if she is married and makes a vow, if her husband at the time that he hears of it disapproves, her commitment shall not stand. Clearly, a woman was not a fully free agent.
We may hearken back to Genesis 1 and 2, where we read two accounts of how man and woman were created. In Genesis 1:27-28, God created man and woman simultaneously, and commanded them to have dominion together over every creature on earth. In Genesis 2:18-24, man is alone and God decides that he needs “a helper.” God removes a rib from Adam’s side and fashions it into a woman. Eve comes after Adam and is seen as his “helper.” She is not his equal. As this second story plays out in history, women become men’s chattel and have with a limited set of rights. For thousands of years, women have been fighting to gain the equality that Genesis 1 stats should have been theirs from day one.
What is also noticeable in Numbers 31 is that God clearly has an anger management issue. Walter Brueggemann wrote a wonderful article for The Bible Challenge called God in Recovery, which you can find on our website under articles at: www.thecenterforbiblicalstudies.org Brueggemann is perhaps the best-known Old Testament scholar in the world today. He wrestles with issues of God’s anger and violence in the Hebrew Scriptures. This article would make a wonderful discussion for a Bible study.
Our image of God deeply affects our self-image and how we act. Think of this in terms of our image of our mother or father. If we think of our father or parents as tyrants, we will either disdain or mirror their behavior. Years ago, while working as a newspaper reporter, I saw a woman enter Night Court in Nashville, Tennessee seeking warrant after her husband beat her. As she spoke to the judge, her two barefoot children waited in the judge’s chamber. The little boy struck his sister and yelled at her. It was learned behavior. He had seen his father strike his mother and yell at her. He figured that this was how a male treats a female. His father modeled this behavior. The girl saw that this is what a man does to a woman. Fortunately, they were learning how a mother protects herself and her children.
We read, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Avenge the Israelites on the Midianites; afterward you shall be gathered to your people.’” (Numbers 31:1) So Moses’s swan song is to destroy the Midianites. He chose 1,000 men from each tribe of Israel and attacked the Midianites, killing the five kings of Midian and Balaam, who had blessed rather than cursed Israel. They burned their towns and took all of their cattle, flocks, goods and women as booty.
Then Moses was angry as his commanders, barking at them, “Have you allowed all the women to live?” (Numbers 31:15) Moses ordered his commanders to “kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him.” (Numbers 31:17) Clearly, the image of a wrathful God pitting one group against another was human projection. It led to Moses commanding the unthinkable.
“The Lord’s anger was kindled on that day and he swore, saying, ‘Surely none of the people who came up out of Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, because they have not unreservedly followed me – none except Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua son of Nun, for they unreservedly followed the Lord.’” (Numbers 32:10-12) Is God so petty? Is God’s love so conditional? Doesn’t God bless despite our manifest sins?
Our concept of God at this point comes chiefly from Moses as interpreted through the writers of the Pentateuch known as the Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly writer and the Deuteronomist or Y, E, P and D. The result is an image of God with anger management problems and a leader of Israel who believes that he has a divine mandate to exterminate other people. This is sacred literature which sadly fuels many Jews and evangelical Christians who believe to this day that God has set aside the Holy Land solely for the Jews and that the Messiah will return when it is completely repopulated by Jews.
Like all things, we must be very careful with the stories that we tell ourselves. Are they accurate? At whose expense do these stories come? Who pays a price for the alleged truth we tell ourselves and others? What is evident is that the Bible must be questioned and read critically, especially anything that suggests that God is angry, loves conditionally and encourages killing people. It is not God who needs to be in recovery, but human beings who distort their image of God to support sinful behavior.
This psalm exemplifies an image of God with an anger management problem. Once again, there is much human projection being put on God. We read,
Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him. (Ps. 50:3)
Mark this, then, you who forget God, or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver you. (Ps. 50:22)
Is this really how God works? Is there truly a devouring fire before God? Does God “tear apart” those who do not obey him? The Bible states that God takes our actions seriously, judges our behavior, rewards our goodness and punishes our evil. These passages, however, suggest something far different. They project God as a tyrant. Yet, hidden among the text is a subplot of love, which is the true voice of God shining through.
Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me. (Ps. 50:15)
…to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God. (Ps. 50:23)
Truly, even in the midst of troubling theology, we can find wisdom and truth.
A young woman and man once met with me on Monday in the hope that I could officiate at their wedding on the coming Friday. A clergy member at my church had tipped me off that the young woman had addiction problems. I asked her about these. She was honest. “I have had an addiction to alcohol and drugs,” she admitted. Her boyfriend seemed aware of both and did not flinch.
I asked her if she had any other addictions. She slowly mentioned, “I have an addiction to lying, to sex and to shoplifting.” With each additional addiction named, the young man’s eyes grew wider until they looked like circles. He clearly did not know about these three addictions. I encouraged them to take a year to get to know one another better, and then to come see me again.
I think about her whenever I read about “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.” (Luke 8:2) That is a lot of demons! A friend and colleague of mine with whom I did youth ministry in Nashville, Tennessee, is now a well-known Episcopal priest and author of several books, including a biographical book called Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling. Her name is Becca Stevens.
Her book recounts how she was sexually abused by the senior warden in her parent’s Episcopal church, after her father, an Episcopal priest, had died. Becca tells the story of how she transformed this crime into a catalyst to start Magdalene Ministries and The Thistle Farm, two important ministries that help to liberate prostitutes, restore their self-image and offer them good employment and work skills. There are Mary Magdalenes in almost every city of the world, waiting for the healing touch of someone like Becca, Magdalene Ministries and The Thistle Farm. We greatly look forward to hosting Becca and two women from Thistle Farm at St. Thomas Church in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania November 22-23.
Jesus then tells the Parable of the Sower, as he did in Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels. It is one of Jesus’s 39 parables, and like many of the other parables it is told with rich, easy-to-understand imagery that spoke to the people of his time and continues to speak to us today. Despite the fact that fewer people earn a living from farming each year, most of us can relate to seeds growing or failing to grow.
“The seed is the word of God,” explains Jesus. (Luke 8:11) Each of us are types of soil into which the seed falls. Some of us are an open path, where the seed does not take root, but the devil easily snatches away the seed anytime it should seek to penetrate our hearts. I truly believe that this happens. All of us must be watchful for this. Others are like the rock. We receive the Word, but have no roots. The Word seeks to grow in us, but cannot because we lack roots. We rejoice briefly in receiving the Word, but three days later we have forgotten it and are focused on other things.
Some of us have lives choked with activities, family obligations and work. There is so much going on in our lives that the Word gets no chance to grow. It gets choked out. “We’ve wanted to come to church, but we’ve been so busy lately,” they tell us clergy. The fact is that they are letting cares, riches and pleasures choke out the life-giving Word that God longs to share with them. We smile and say, “I understand” when we probably should say, “The very thing that could help your family thrive most is getting choked to death by your life. Don’t let the thorns choke the joy God desires for your family.”
Then there is the good soil. These are the lives of those who hear and receive the Word, and “hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.” (Luke 8:15) These persons produce a hundred-fold harvest for God.
Jesus goes on to calm a storm on the Sea of Galilee, to heal a demoniac, to restore to life a couple’s only child and to heal a woman, who has suffered for 12 years. Jesus is a miraculous healer! I particularly like the story about the woman who takes responsibility for her own healing and reaches out to touch the hem of Jesus’s garment and is healed. She is not passive. This unnamed woman tried every cure for years and took responsibility for her own healing. Jesus, meanwhile, “noticed that power had gone out from [him].” (Luke 8:46) Whenever I reflect on this story, I recall how Jesus was keenly aware of his energy level. He regularly replenished it by going a secluded place to be alone with God in silence and pray. This restored his energy and provided massive reserves for healing that others could daily draw upon. It provided a well of wisdom that he drew upon each time he opened his mouth to teach.
Every Christian would be wise to take time each day to sit or kneel in silence and read Scripture, meditate slowly on God’s Word, offer prayers and listen attentively for God to respond. Let God fill your spiritual well each day and replenish your energy supply and love reservoir so that wisdom and healing graces might flow from God through you and into the lives of those around you.
“Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” (Ps. 50:15)
“…to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God.” (Ps. 50:23)
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables…” (Luke 8:10)
“For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.” (Luke 8:17)
“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Luke 8:21)
“[Jesus] said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’” (Luke 8:25)
In what ways do you perpetuate treating women unjustly? What images of life have your parents given you that need to be dismantled for you to live a freer, better life? What do you project on God which is your own stuff? What is the soil like in your life for receiving God powerful Word? What secret in your life do you hope never comes to light? How will you deal with it? If Jesus asked, “Where is your faith?” what would you have to say in response? How can Jesus heal you? What responsibility will you take?
Almighty God, you shine a light on every aspect of our life and nothing which is secret will not eventually be revealed and exposed to you. Help us to address those areas of our lives that are most problematic and to allow your healing graces to cleanse and restore us to the image in which you created us. Let us reach out to your healing touch and allow your divine Word to find deep root within us so that we may produce a hundred-fold harvest for you. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania