Torah scroll

Study Notes – Numbers 14 10-20

We are studying Numbers 14:10-20 for Sunday, September 29. This continues the story we began last week, with YHWH’s response to the Israelites’ refusal to enter the land – or at least, a portion of that response! [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on the text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is the immediate continuation of last week’s text, so our context is still much the same – although the events in last week’s text are our new context: the Israelites have refused to enter “the land of Canaan, which I [YHWH] am giving to the Israelites” (Numbers 13:2).

Last week we relied fairly heavily on the idea that God had clearly instructed the Israelites to enter the land of Canaan. We might want to rethink that description of the situation. Not to let the Israelites off the hook, but because if we think that, we may be missing something that is going on in the text here.

It appears to me that God has not exactly issued precise instructions to “go conquer the land of Canaan.” At least, if God has done that, I’ve missed it. Rather, God has said “I’m giving you …” and the Israelites’ response here has been “well, thanks for less than nothing, then.” This may put a different spin on our thinking about the whole episode. There is an element of despising God’s generosity involved in the Israelites’ rejection of the land at the beginning of chapter 14.

There’s some support for this reading in the language of Numbers 13:32 – the significance of the 10 spies’ “unfavorable report of the land,” which the rest of the Israelites accept, and in Numbers 14:11, where YHWH uses the language of being “despised,” treated with contempt. We tend to fault the scared Israelites for their disobedience, but we should probably really fault them for their ingratitude. And maybe also their sense of entitlement. [Ouch.]

Our lesson selection ends with v20, but if we stop there we’ll miss God’s oath and outline of the consequences for the unfaith in verses 21-24 and God’s final instructions in v25. Probably not a good idea.

It looks like there is a retelling of the episode in verses 26-35, and some immediate repercussions for the troublemaking spies in 36-37.

And let’s notice that the story in these two chapters is the reason for the rest of the book of Numbers, from the standpoint of plot.

[Sometimes people talk about us writing the stories of our lives. Sometimes people talk about God’s plan for our lives. But this story suggests that we and God collaborate on writing these stories – what we do and don’t do affects the plot.]

CLOSER READING: At the end of verse 10, the whole congregation is saying to stone Caleb and Joshua with stones, when the glory of YHWH appeared in the tent of meeting to all the children of Israel. We could think of those scenes in movies where someone is bad-mouthing one of the characters and a hush falls over the scene and the speaker says “she’s right behind me, isn’t she?”

Sometimes when the glory of YHWH appears in scripture, God is pleased. (E.g., on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 24:16, or when the tabernacle is dedicated in Exodus 40:34, or when Solomon’s temple is dedicated in 1 Kings 8:11.) This time, God is clearly displeased.

The accusation is that the people despise YHWH and don’t trust YHWH, even after all these signs that have been displayed among them. The notion of God’s activity “among them” is stressed here; God mentions it here in v11, Moses reiterates the idea in v12 and v14. In v12 the “among” actually refers to the Israelites, who were “among” the Egyptians – seeding the idea that the people themselves are the glory of God, or are supposed to be, which will be Moses’s implicit theme in his intercessory speech in vv13-19.

The Israelites have begun to work on an alternative plan (v4); in v12 YHWH proposes a different alternative plan: I’ll kill all of them, and make a nation of you [Moses].

If Moses was at all tempted by this proposal, the text does not tell us so.

Moses appeals to God’s reputation. [“Think of the optics.”] The Egyptians and the nations associate God with the people of Israel. This is ironic! The Israelites, who experience God’s presence among them, who see God literally “eye to eye” (v14), don’t trust those signs enough to act on them. The nations, though, take the mere report of those signs seriously enough that they will think less of God if God kills the Israelites in the wilderness.

Then Moses appeals to God’s character, and power (v17). The “word” Moses cites in v18 God spoke previously on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 34:7) when the second set of tablets was made. This makes it particularly apt to invoke here, since it was a word spoken at an earlier, significant occasion of divine forbearance. It also invokes the covenant God made with the people at Sinai.

God is slow to anger and great in chesed and bearing (we say “forgiving” here) “iniquity and transgression.”

And then, along with all that, God has an additional attribute that is difficult to translate. In literal clunky Hebrew is reads “to hold innocent not he holds innocent.” The “guilty” word in our text seems to have been added by the translators of the Septuagint. One nice translation suggestion I found was “will not altogether hold innocent”; Rashi says “cleanses [some], doesn’t cleanse [others].” How we translate it may affect how we think about it. The idea seems to be “yes, God forgives, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences.” That idea will be illustrated later in the text.

Finally, Moses appeals to God’s sunk costs. In v19, he asks God to pardon the people both because of God’s great chesed, steadfast love, and because God has borne the people from Egypt until now, echoing that bearing he mentioned in v18.

[Now is not the time to give in, back down, change horses in mid-stream, now is the time to be consistent, to stay the course, to hold fast to your principles. That moment of decision faced by every parent ever.]

The Israelites owe a lot to Moses. Moses’s appeals work. God says “I do pardon” (v20).

Considering this, it makes me wonder where the Israelites themselves were when God tells Moses that striking the rock at Meribah (Numbers 20) has gotten him permanently barred from entering the Promised Land. Every study of that text I’ve ever been in, people wonder about God, and why God is so picky, when Moses has done so well up till then. But now I wonder … why do we never ask why the people don’t intercede for Moses there? We probably should ask that.

And then God lays out the consequences in vv21-23. So that untranslatable clause in v18 is serious.

This idea that forgiveness is compatible with definite negative consequences seems like a particularly important idea here. Our lesson commentary points out that it has a limit (“to the third and fourth generation,” which is an improvement over some ancient practices). But it also seems like something we take too lightly and forget too easily – both when we think about our own relationship with God, and when we think about our relationships with other people. Christians sometimes seem to have the idea that God’s forgiveness always wipes the slate clean, and human forgiveness must do the same – even in cases where, for instance, lifting that restraining order would be objectively dangerous to the health and welfare of the individual being counseled to “forgive.”

If something we see in this story is that we collaborate with God in writing the stories of our lives, then something else we see in this story is that what we do matters. Forgiveness matters, too. It’s an indispensable intervention, and it averts doom and disaster. But it’s not a reset, at least not in this story; the Israelites’ itinerary is permanently affected.

Saying “no” to God makes for a different story.

But if we take that seriously, then we’ll have to ask ourselves … what story do we really want to write in our own lives?

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