Numbers 12-14, Psalm 44, Luke 2
They must be giants!
Numbers 12 – 14
Wherever there is success, there will be jealously. Moses has led the Israelites out of Egypt. He has God’s ear, and God speaks directly to him. He has given to Moses the Ten Commandments and passed onto him as well laws to govern the Jewish people. Now Miriam and Aaron are disgruntled.
At first, they are disgruntled because Moses married a Cushite woman. But then they ask themselves, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (Numbers 12:2) The Bible tells us that God heard what they said, and it displeased God greatly.
We read, “Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (Numbers 12:3) This is odd, because the first five books of the Bible are attributed to Moses. Scholars doubt that he alone wrote all five, but if he wrote this, how humble was he? Still, God was unhappy with Miriam and Aaron. So, God called a tete a tete and spoke directly to Moses and them, saying,
Hear my words: When there are prophets among you, I the Lord make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dream. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak face to face – clearly not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the Lord. (Numbers 12:6-8)
Moses clearly has a privileged position with God; so privileged it is that no human before or since has had such a close relationship with God, except for Jesus. For Yahweh, however, a verbal rebuke is never enough. Instead, God turns Miriam leprous and “white as snow.” Her brother-in-law, Moses, strikes a bargain with God. After seven days of being expelled from camp as a leper, Miriam will be clean. In an era when every disease was viewed as a punishment from God, it was clear to all that Miriam had done something profoundly wrong to offend God. Only she became a leper. For now, she is redeemed.
Chapter 13 begins one of the most fascinating stories of the Bible. God commands Moses to send out a scouting party to get reconnaissance on the land of Canaan. Isn’t this late to be doing this? After all, the Israelites left Egypt some 65 chapters ago in Exodus 15 where we read that “Moses ordered Israel to set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur.” Shur located in the Arabian desert to the northeast of Egypt on the way to Assyria. It is mentioned several times in the Bible, including when Hagar fled from Abraham and Sarah. She wandered into the desert and “The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur.” (Gen. 16:7)
The Israelites have had 65 chapters to enter the Promised Land, and they still have not reached it. One of the great puzzles of the Bible is that the Israelites reportedly wandered for 40 years in the desert before arriving in Palestine. For anyone else making the journey on foot, it is a two week trek!
Always cautious, Yahweh commands Moses to send spies before him to scout out the land of Canaan. Wisely, God commands Moses to send one leader from each of the ancestral tribes of Israel. God commanded that all of them were “leading men among the Israelites.” (Numbers 13:3) So, their report should carry weight and receive buy in from all of the Israelites. They set out from Paran, which was home to Ishmael and a refuge for King David (1 Sam. 25:1). Today, it is better known as Mecca!
Moses asked the spies to report their findings. “See what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land they live in is good or bad, and whether the towns that they live in are unwalled or fortified, and whether the land is rich or poor… Be bold and bring some of the fruit of the land.” (Numbers 13:18-20)
Fruit normally does not last long or travel well. But the latter command sets the Israelites spies up for bringing back the largest grapes that the world has ever known. There at the Wadi Eshcol, the spies “cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them.” (Numbers 13:23) Artists across the centuries have depicted these two spies carrying a massive cluster of grapes on a pole. The Israelites later fashioned an enormous cluster of grapes made of gold to adorn that Temple in Jerusalem with grapes the size of human heads. Did these commemorate the famous grapes found in Numbers 13:23?
At the end of 40 days, the spies returned to Moses and reported finding a land that “flows with milk and honey.” They displayed grapes, pomegranates and figs, which they found. The people were said to be strong and “the towns [were] fortified and very large.” (Numbers 13:28) They noted, “We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.” (Numbers 13:31) They were the Nephilim, a mythically-large people whom the spies said made them feel “like grasshoppers.” (Numbers 13:33)
In chapter 14 the Israelites complain yet again, except this time they said, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:4) There is part of each of us that wants to go back to Egypt, no matter how bad Egypt was. There is something about the human mind that forgets the bad episodes of life. People are tempted to re-enter a bad relationship, return to a place that they never liked or return to a school or job where they struggled. Were the Israelites not “slaves” in the land of Egypt and under Pharaoh’s constant thumb?
Once again, Moses and Aaron must fall on their faces and beseech the congregation not to rebel. They share the report of the spies and news that the Canaan is an “exceedingly good land” and “a land that flows with milk and honey.” (Numbers 14:8) But this is not good enough, and the Israelites almost stone Moses and Aaron. God is unhappy and threatens to strike the people with a pestilence and disinherit them. Once again, Moses must appeal to God.
This time, the wise Moses appeals to God’s reputation. “Now if you kill this people all at one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.” (Numbers 14:15-16) Wanting to spare his own reputation, God relents, but not before exacting payment.
Because of Israel’s constant lamenting, rebellious attitude, sins and inability to appreciate God’s miracles, God states that none of the current generation of Israelites except Joshua and Caleb will enter the Promised Land. All others, including Moses, will die before the Israelites enter the land of milk and honey. Just as in the Garden of Eden, if we violate God’s commands, there is always a price to be paid.
The Exodus and the Conquest of Canaan are two of the most significant chapters in Israel’s history. For this reason, the psalmist frequently hearkens back to them. In Psalm 44 we read,
Our ancestors have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days,
in the days of old:
you with your hand drove out the nations…
for not by their own sword did they win the land,
nor did their own arm give them victory;
but your right hand, and your arm,
and the light of your countenance,
for you delighted in them. (Ps. 44:1-3)
It may take a while, sometimes a very long time, but if we are patient, we, like Yahweh, will receive credit for the good that we have done. Our children, colleagues and those with whom we live, we acknowledge what we have done and the sacrifices that we have made. While the Israelites lament their condition in the wilderness time and again, their descendants remember only God’s generosity and protective care which brought them to safety in the land of milk and honey. Hold onto hope! Your good works, countless sacrifices and undying love will one day be acknowledged, too.
Luke tells the story of Jesus’s birth in his own unique way. As previously noted, Mark and John give no birth narrative. Matthew and Luke are responsible alone for the stories that are woven into every Christmas pageant. Their stories, however, differ significantly. Matthew alone gives us the story of the wise men or magi who follow a star, visit Jesus and present gifts that symbolize Jesus’s kingship, priesthood and death. He alone gives us the story of King Herod and the massacre of babies and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt.
Both Matthew and Luke concur that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, though they cite different reasons for the location of this event. Matthew hearkens to Micah 5:2, where we read,
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)
For Matthew, Bethlehem conveys the relationship with Jesus to the lineage of King David. Luke, however, fixes the event in history. Unlike Matthew, Luke was writing for a Gentile audience. He was trying to tell the story of Jesus’s birth in the most factual, historical way possible. He notes that Emperor Augustus issued a decree that a census be taken throughout the Roman world.
Known as the Census of Quirinius, the census refers to the enrollment of the Roman provinces of Syria and Judaea for tax purposes in the year 6-7 A.D. The census was taken during the reign of Emperor Augustus, who ruled from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. when Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was governor of Syria. The Jewish historian Josephus confirms that this event took place in the years 6-7 A.D. Josephus links the census to a Jewish uprising led by Judas of Galilee. It was most likely taken for tax purposes.
Some speculate that this might be the beginning of a Zealot movement that encouraged armed resistance to the Roman empire , which culminated in the First Jewish-Roman War. Jesus included “Simon who was called the Zealot” (Luke 6:15) among his disciples along with Levi the tax collector (Luke 5:27). Normally, a Zealot and a tax collector would never associate with one another. It was a testimony to Jesus’s leadership that he could hold such diverse people together in community.
Luke’s story of the census explains why Jesus’s parents traveled from their home in Nazareth of Galilee to Bethlehem of Judea, where Jesus was born. Scholars believe that the story may have been told to link Jesus to Bethlehem, the city where King David was born and raised. There are, however, many problems with this story. Matthew, for example, makes no mention of the census and indicates that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 B.C. at least ten years before this census was taken.
In addition, we have no historical sources that mention a Roman census which covered the entire empire. Furthermore, Roman censuses did not require people to return to their ancestral homes. It was the census-takers, not the taxed, who had to travel. Biblical scholars have long tried to suggest ways for reconciling the various accounts of Jesus’s birth. Some suggest that Luke and Josephus were incorrect in their historical accounts or that their texts were alerted by later writers. Some suggest that the census was conducted while Gaius Sentius Saturninus or Publius Quinctilus Varus were governors during Herod’s time or that Luke’s Gospel meant to suggest that the census took place before Quirinius’s time.
What scholars confirm is that we know of no general census taken by Augustus, that no census would have been taken in Judea during the reign of Herod, that Joseph and Mary would not have had to travel to Bethlehem and that Quirinius was not governor of Syria until long after the reign of Herod. Scholars suggest that Luke was more interested in creating a symbolic narrative than telling a factual history or that he was simply unaware of the true dates of various leaders.
One of the greatest New Testament scholars of our time, Raymond Brown, noted in The Birth of the Messiah (1977) that “this information is dubious on almost every score, despite the elaborate attempts by scholars to defend the Lucan accuracy.” Hence, we are most likely reading a symbolic narrative as opposed to an accurate history. This does not negate the truths and wisdom that we shall discover in Luke’s Gospel. Rather, it means that this text cannot be relied upon as a primary historical resource.
It is important to note that an angel and “a multitude of the heavenly host” then appeared before the shepherds in the fields praising God and saying,
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on each peace among those whom he favors! (Luke 2:14)
What is significant is that the shepherds were not regular worshippers. They were despised by the Jews for many reasons. They were dirty, often thieves and not regular worshippers. For us, they represent the unchurched or those who do not worship with us. The shepherds received the word of Christ’s birth first. Even more importantly, they shared what the angel told them with the Holy Family, causing Mary to ponder their words in her heart. The shepherds then returned to home “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:20) Never underestimate the power of God to work through the least likely to convey Good News.
I have recently been working with Andrew, a recovering crack addict, who is a modern day shepherd. He barely makes a living. He is fragile. His hands shake, and his voice quivers. He lives in a one room efficiency attached to the back of someone’s house and works washing dishes in a neighborhood where he fears being mugged as he walks home at night. God speaks through people like this recovering crack addict. God has a message for us. The poor have much to teach us, if only we have ears to listen.
Bishop Rob Wright, the new Episcopal bishop of Atlanta, spent the recent Martin Luther King, Jr. Day riding a sanitation truck around Atlanta, in honor of Dr. King, who had led a sanitation strike in Memphis in 1968. It was a powerful gesture and one never done by any of Wright’s predecessors. Bishop Wright dressed like a sanitation workers, led sanitation workers in prayer and worked beside them for a day. Sanitation workers are modern shepherds. They are people looked down upon by others.
Spending a day with those who are on the margins of the Episcopal Church sent a resounding message to the city where Dr. King attended college and based his ministry. It would be good for more bishops to reach out to the shepherds in our midst, not just spending time with priests and church members. I know that in my own ministry, I need to reach out more effectively to those in need beyond our church.
Luke continues his musical as Simeon, an aged man who is guided by the Holy Spirit, comes to the Temple and recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. Mary and Joseph have come to the Temple for the rite of purification following a birth. They will present “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” the offering of a poor person. Simeon cradles Jesus in his arms and sings,
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)
These words become the canticle known as the Nunc Dimittis or Song of Simeon, which is sung or said at every Evensong or Evening Prayer service. Oddly, Mary and Joseph are amazed, despite all the clues that they have already received, to learn that Jesus will be the Savior of the world. This news, however, is seemingly incomprehensible. Mary pondered in her heart all of what was said about her son.
Finally, Jesus is left behind in Jerusalem after his parents journeyed from Galilee to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. No other gospel records this story. Mark’s and John’s Gospels begin with Jesus as an adult. Matthew flashes forward from the flight to Egypt to Jesus’s adulthood and baptism in the River Jordan. The Gnostic Gospels offer some strange stories of Jesus’s adolescence, including stories where Jesus and his friends made clay birds, but Jesus clapped his hands and his bird flew off!
Only Luke among the four evangelists pauses to give us a powerful story of Jesus’s adolescence. Luke drives home the fact that Jesus grew in astonishing wisdom early in life. By the age of 12, he was a child prodigy listening to the wise leaders and “asking them questions.” Throughout his ministry Jesus will be a question asker. He asked eight times more questions than he answered. Christianity is more about asking the right questions than having all the answers. We must wonder why the Church spends so much time answering questions that people are not asking. Real ministry begins with asking questions, not offering solutions and answers to things that people do not have on their hearts or in their heads.
Why did Jesus get left behind? At the age of 12, a boy moved from traveling with women to traveling with the men. This was new for his parents. Most likely both Joseph and Mary each thought that the other had Jesus with them. Joseph had spent 12 years with Mary taking charge of their son. This new transition was clearly not worked out, and Jesus was left behind. Oddly, the last place that his parents searched was the Temple, where Jesus was found. Ancient Jerusalem was not a vast city. It still is not. In three hours you can cover much ground. After three days, you can easily have explored every nook and cranny. It is puzzling why his parents did not explore the Temple sooner in their search for Jesus.
When there are prophets among you, I the Lord make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams. (Numbers 12:6)
If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. (Numbers 14:8)
If we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread out our hands to a strange god, would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart. (Ps. 44:20-21)
But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? (Luke 2:49)
Of whom are you jealous? About what do you continually lament? What provokes a rebellious spirit within you? What journey is taking you 40 years rather than two weeks? From who do you most long to hear words of gratitude for the sacrifices and love that you have shown? How do you reach out to the shepherds around you? How are you helping your children or grandchildren to grow in wisdom? Where do you find Jesus – inside the church, outside in nature or in the face of the poor?
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, Maker of Heaven and Earth, you watch over us and see all that we do and hear all that we utter. Guide us to watch our actions and exercise care with our words. Remove our rebellious spirit and give us patience when patience is in short supply. Help us to reach out to the shepherds around us, those who are marginalized and cast out. Teach us so that we might help our families grow in wisdom and grace. In Jesus’s name we prayer. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania