Friday, July 2, 2010

Disposable Leaders

In Numbers 18, God confirmed a hierarchy of personal relationship, where only the Priests had access to God, and where anyone else who tried to access God would be killed. This is not exactly a great foreshadowing of Christianity.

In Numbers 19, God instructs on the purification of sin through water of cleansing; water mixed with the ashes of red cow, cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool. Again, this seems off for foreshadowing Christianity, but there is something even more strange about it. Aaron was the High Priest at the time, while Eleazar was his son. God specifically instructed Eleazar to make these special ashes, excluding Aaron and his other remaining son/Priest Ithamar. (Aaron's other two sons, Nadab and Abihu, had been burned to death by God.)

Why was Eleazar selected? That answer may be revealed in the next within this study of the next chapter.

(On a side note, it is rather amusing that the water of cleansing is used anachronistically in Numbers 8:7 before it was defined in Numbers 19:1-10.)

Disposable Leaders
In the business world, sometimes a manager will look for any excuse to fire a particularly bad employee. Poor attendance. Surfing the Internet instead of working. Stealing office supplies. Any little recordable reason will suffice to be rid of the bigger problem at hand. As it turns out, God may be the same way, even with His favorite worshipers, as we will see in this study.

In Numbers 20:1-5, we find the Israelites at Kadesh in the Desert of Zin. There was no water, so the Israelites complained to Moses about the lack of water and variety of their diet.

Does that plot sound familiar? It might if you remember the previous study involving thirsty Israelites, or if you remember complaints about water in Exodus 15:22-25 and Exodus 17:1-7, or complaints about food variety in Exodus 16 and Numbers 11:1-35 (also in a previous study).

Because of its many similarities with our present study, the Exodus 17:1-7 account stands out. There they are walking through the Desert of Sin. There was no water, so the Israelites complained to Moses that they were dying of thirst. God tells Moses to whack a rock with his staff, and God would make a spring come forth from it. Moses does this, and then names the place Meribah, which means quarreling.

Continuing now with the story in Numbers 20:6-13, God tells Moses to whack a rock with his staff to make a spring come forth from it. This place is called Meribah too. Quite a coincidence, huh? Even the names Sin and Zin are so close that it makes you wonder if this is really two tales are of the same origin.

Yet there are differences. Big differences. While the Exodus 17:1-7 episode went rather smoothly, the Numbers 20:1-13 version results in condemnation. In Numbers 20:10-11:
[Moses] and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, "Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?" Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. NIV
You may be wondering why Moses, the most humble man in the world (Numbers 12:3), is so confrontational. Well, the rebels did start it (Numbers 20:3-5), and perhaps Moses was remembering how God acted the last time the Israelites complained about provisions, sending a plague which killed many Israelites. It seems like Moses is projecting his and God's frustrations (Numbers 17:10) at this rebellious people. (Rebellious, that is, for being thirsty in the desert and complaining about it.)

Well, God was not impressed by this performance. We find in Numbers 20:12:
But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not trust in Me enough to honor Me as Holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them." NIV
Wait, what? What is that supposed to mean?

Christian commentaries are a bit confused and uncertain as to what this means. They have come up with a myriad of explanations for why God was angry:
  • Moses took credit for God's work, as seen by “must we bring you water...”
  • God told Moses to speak to the rock (Numbers 20:8), but instead he struck it twice.
  • Moses spoke to the people instead of to the rock.
  • It was implied that Moses should strike the rock once, but instead he struck it twice.
  • Moses struck the rock twice because he did not believe that once would be enough, similar to his second-guessing God in Numbers 11:21-23.
  • By striking the rock twice, Moses messed up God's planned symbolism for Jesus being struck down once to produce “living water” (1 Corinthians 10:4) (despite this being actually the second episode of a rock being struck to produce water).
  • Moses acted in a fit of rage and spoke in anger calling them rebels (Matthew 5:22) (despite that he was saying essentially what God had previously said in Numbers 17:10).
  • Moses and Aaron had unbelief that God would actually provide water for such a rebellious people.
Thank God that the words of the Bible, and even the very words of God Himself, are so clear as to prevent misunderstanding, huh?

There are two references to this episode beyond this chapter which may help clarify. Numbers 27:13-14 claims that both Aaron and Moses “disobeyed [God's] command to honor [Him] as Holy.” Psalm 106:32-33 claims that “trouble came to Moses because of [the Israelites]” and “rash words came from Moses' lips.”

The commandment to honor God as holy comes from Leviticus 22:32:
"Do not profane My Holy name. I must be acknowledged as Holy by the Israelites. I am the LORD, who makes you holy." NIV
So putting all of the pieces together, it may be that God was offended by Moses using the term “we” in the act of bringing forth water; not in the sense that he was taking credit, but rather in the he was bringing God down to the level of himself and Aaron, or elevating himself and Aaron up to God's level. Moses did not emphasize that God was separate and different from himself, and the almighty, Holy source of miracles. Or simply put; Moses did not acknowledge God as superior in Holiness.

Of course, this still makes you wonder why Aaron was condemned in this episode. Was it just guilt by association, or is this what God meant by holding the Priests accountable for transgressions against the Priesthood?

Whatever the reason for God's pronouncement of a death sentence on Moses and Aaron, it seems relatively minor compared to their past transgressions. Moses was very reluctant in obeying God, he had challenged God's decisions not once, but twice, and he had previously doubted that God could provide what He had promised. Aaron lead the Gold Cow rebellion and complained about the superiority of Moses.

So it appears as though God is just drawing an arbitrary line, using this fairly minor mistake as an excuse for a change of command. Aaron dies at the end of the chapter, bestowing his son Eleazar with the title of High Priest (Numbers 20:22-29). Moses survives a bit longer, but dies before entering the Promised Land, and Joshua assumes the role of leadership in his place (Deuteronomy 34).

(For those of you who may still believe that this episode foreshadows Jesus, take a moment to consider that both this place and the previous place where water came from a rock were both named Meribah, which means quarreling, and that Moses and Aaron became condemned to die early as a form of punishment for their actions. Then ask yourself: How could those facts possibly relate to Jesus?)

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