Numbers 24-26, Psalm 48, Luke 6
Is God for real or merely a projection of human desire?
Numbers 24 – 26
Balaam was a good man. God commanded him to say nothing beyond the words that God would give him, and Balaam was faithful to God’s command. Balaam blessed Israel three times instead of cursing the people that Balak had desired him to curse. In his third oracle, Balaam said,
God who brings him out of Egypt, is like the horns of a wild ox for him; he shall deliver the nations that are his foes and break their bones. He shall strike with arrows. (Numbers 24:8)
Sigmund Freud had much to say about religion being a projection of human desire. In many cases it is. We create an image of God to fulfill our own desires. As Christians, however, we do not need to accept Freud’s premise. We have the historic incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, who walked among us, taught, preached, performed miracles and died for us on the cross and was resurrected. We do not have to rely on Numbers and other books of the Bible to reveal God’s nature to us. We have Jesus.
In various parts of the Bible, we find images of God that appear to be solely human projections. The idea of God devouring the nations that oppose the Israelites is one of them. Christians and Jews believe that God honors the good that nations and individuals do. Likewise, we believe that God punishes nations, communities and individuals when we sin and do things that are abhorrent to God.
Because Balaam blessed Israel three times, Balak dismissed him. “Now be off with you! Go home! I said, ‘I will reward you richly,’ but the Lord has denied you any reward.’” (Numbers 24:11) Balaam stuck to his guns. He informed Balak, “Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, ‘If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will: what the Lord says, that is what I will say.” (Numbers 24:13)
That is indeed a great role model for us to emulate. The person who first got me thinking about doing what I developed into The Bible Challenge is an incredibly faithful Episcopal priest named Frank Allen. He prays before making any major commitments and is constantly trying to discern the path that God is calling his congregation and him to follow. He is an incredibly faithful Christian. As a result of his leadership, his parish – St. David’s Church in Wayne, Pennsylvania – has flourished. God rewards our faithfulness as individuals and as communities.
Likewise, God punishes our lack of faithfulness and withholds blessings from us. After Israel was blessed three times by Balaam, the Israelites staying at Shittim had sexual relations with the women of Moab. They ate meat sacrificed to pagan gods and bowed before pagan gods. Yahweh abhorred this and ordered Moses to impale the leaders who had done this. Moses commanded the judges of Israel to carry out this punishment. Not satisfied, God sent a plague and 24,000 people died. I concur with Freud that we humans project a lot of our own human desires and perceptions onto God. Almost any time we read about a wrathful God killing people, you can be certain that it is human projection.
Keeping in line with the title of the book, the author of Numbers notes that a second census was taken. This time there are even more Israelites. The tribe of Judah has grown from 74,600 to 76,600. The tribe of Manasseh has grown from 32,200 to 52,700 and the tribe of Benjamin has grown from 35,400 to 45,600. Growth was a sign that God was blessed Israel as it faithfully journeyed to the Promised Land.
St. Augustine of Hippo wrote one of the great treatises of Christianity called The City of God, wherein Augustine notes that there are those who God has that the Church does not have and those whom the Church has that God does not have. Augustine’s point is that “the City of God” is no coterminous with “the Church.” There is clear overlap between those whom God has and the Church has, but there are some who belong to a church but hardly act like Christians, and those who act like Christians who are not on any church membership rolls.
In Psalm 48, the psalmist talks about “the city of the Lord of hosts, in the city of our God.” (Ps. 48:8) We can only imagine what such a city would look like. I imagine it would look like heaven. Joy and peace would permeate it. There would be no selfishness, evil or hatred, no crime or poverty, but only an outpouring everywhere of charity, hope, faith and grace.
The psalmist, however, offers a human projection of the city of God when he writes,
Walk about Zion, go all around it,
count its towers,
consider well its ramparts;
go through its citadels,
that you may tell the next generation
that this is God,
our God forever and ever. (Ps. 48:12-14)
Can we judge our relationship with God by how well our military holds up? There are some who feel this way, but it is dangerous to equate the forces of empire with the goodness of God.
Luke 6 opens with a strong focus on the Sabbath. Jesus’s disciples pluck some heads of grain and produced a little fiber snack while walking on the Sabbath. The overly scrupulous Pharisees went berserk, as if Jesus had threatened to burn down the Temple. On another Sabbath, Jesus entered a synagogue, where he saw a man with a withered hand. Even though the Pharisees were watching him, Jesus healed the man. Once again, the Pharisees were outraged. There are few sadder sights that a religious person filled with fury. Religion and fury are never a good mixture!
Jesus performed more miracles on the Sabbath – seven all told – than on any other day of the week. The Sabbath itself was a miracle. It was a day that God set aside for humans to renew and restore themselves and draw closer to God. The Sabbath was a day for prayer, worship, reading Scripture, taking a nap, spending with family and friends and not doing whatever we normally consider to be work.
Dr. Matthew Sleeth is a former emergency room physician who has written a helpful book called 24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life. I heard him recently give a great lecture on the Sabbath and how we are destroying ourselves by not keeping it. His thoughts were powerful.
The commandment to honor the Sabbath comes from the Ten Commandments given to Moses and the Israelites in the Book of Exodus. The first three commandments are all about God. The last six focus on how we relate to other humans. The fourth commandment calls us to honor the Sabbath. It is a bridge commandment that lies between the focus on God and the focus on other humans. The Sabbath is where we meet God. It is the only commandment that God applies to himself.
Sleeth notes that 98% of American Christians believe that the Ten Commandments are important for the way that we live, but only about 3% are committed to honoring the Sabbath at all times. As a result, fewer and fewer Christians are honoring the Sabbath and accepting God’s gift of a day to rebuild, renew and restore ourselves.
“Why would we get rid of a commandment that says take a day of rest, go to church, pray, read the Bible, have a nap and spend time growing closer to God, family and friends?” asked Sleeth. The French philosopher Voltaire said that if you want to destroy Christianity, take away the Christian Sabbath.
That is exactly what the French did during their Revolution. They desired to get rid of the king and the Church. Getting rid of a king was easy. They chopped off his head. In order to get rid of the Church, the revolutionaries created a ten day week with no Sabbath. Hitler and Stalin also wanted to rid themselves of the Church. Stalin created a five day work week with no Sabbath – just work, work and more work.
Americans today are going 24/7. We can buy a car, a dozen eggs or go to the gym at 3 a.m. “We are killing ourselves by not taking a Sabbath and putting any pauses in our life,” he noted. Musicians tell us that it is not the notes, but the pauses or silence in between notes that give music its form. The pauses allow the notes to stand out gloriously. Similarly, without taking pauses in our life for silence, rest and renewal, the beautiful notes of our efforts become muted and lose their glorious character.
“Americans are the most depressed people on earth,” said Sleeth. About 10% of Americans now take anti-depressants. It’s the highest level of depression found in any country. Without a Sabbath, life quickly becomes depressing.
When the Civil War broke out, Abraham Lincoln issued an order that no fighting or marching was to occur on the Sabbath unless soldiers were under immanent threat. George Washington did the same thing at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Lincoln said, “If we surrender the Sabbath, it won’t matter who wins the war because we will all be slaves. We will have lost what is most precious.”
Figure out whatever is work for you, and don’t do it on the Sabbath. That is sound advice. The Sabbath is where we meet God. We rarely meet God in the midst of noise and activity. We meet God best in silence and solitude. Make each Sunday a day to worship, pray, read the Bible, nap, take a walk, spend time with family and friends and do whatever is not work for you. You will never regret it!
After praying and honoring the Sabbath regularly, Jesus was in close touch with God and deeply centered. He selected his disciples. (Luke 6:12-16) He chose twelve men whom most of us would probably have overlooked, but God changed the world through them.
Luke notes that Jesus was on the mountain surrounded by his followers when he prayed. After praying, he selected twelve to form the nucleus of leadership. He bestowed special gifts on them and spent much time teaching them about the ways of God and empowering them to equip others in service.
Then Jesus descended down the mountain. Here Luke’s Gospel differs sharply from Matthew’s. In Matthew, Jesus offers the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:1-7:29), where he literally towers above his audience as he speak from a mount. In contrast, Luke’s portrays Jesus as a man of the people, always healing and interacting with the poor. Luke captures Jesus offering the Sermon on the Plain. If you take a pilgrimage to Israel, you will surely visit the Mount of Beatitudes. Two thousand years later, you will see a mount and also a natural bowl carved into the hillside. It was here that Jesus descended into a natural amphitheater and walked among the crowds as he spoke.
We read, “[Jesus] came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.” (Luke 6:17) Not only was Jesus on the same level with people, the crowd was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. This was extremely rare. Tyre and Sidon were Gentile regions. No Jew ventured there. This would be like a priest today addressing a large audience of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, Protestants and Roman Catholics. These folks could gather politically, but not religiously. Jesus defied boundaries and pushed limits as he brought differing peoples together and created heavenly colonies on earth.
This chapter offers some of Jesus’s greatest wisdom. Our Lord explains to us, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:37-38)
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. (Luke 6:32-35)
Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. (Luke 6:37)
Do you think that some of our concepts of God are merely human projection? Do you believe God grants some nations victory over others? Does God reward us for being faithful and punish us for being disobedient? Do you feel part of the Church or part of the City of God or both? How faithful are about honoring the Sabbath? Do you ever work on the Sabbath? Are working 24/7? What keeps you from taking a pause and letting the restful silence of the Sabbath magnify the notes of your daily living?
Peaceful and Gentle God, you made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Help us how to rest in you as we honor the Sabbath, so we might draw closer to you as we worship, pray, read your Word and spend time with family and friends. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania