Tag Archives: Numbers 31

A Very Different Time and Place

The Lord said to Moses, “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people.”

Remember Pearl Harbor” was a popular phrase in the years of World War II. It was a reminder to all Americans that the United States had been attacked by the Japanese without warning or provocation. To this day, most Americans need only see the number 9/11 to raise up similar feelings of sadness, grief, disbelief and anger. While trends on twitter may come and go in minutes, there are some events for which national memory is slow to forget.

For Moses and the Hebrew tribes, the phrase “Remember Peor” may have been a similar phrase. Just a number of chapters back we read the story of how the Israelites were camped near the Midianite town of Peor. The Midianite King tried to hire a well-known seer named Balaam to curse the Israelites, but Balaam couldn’t do it because he knew God had blessed them. So, Balaam conjured a clandestine plan to subvert the Israelites. Midianite maidens were sent to seduce Israelite men and convince them to worship their Midianite gods. To the ancient Israelites, the seduction of their men into worshipping the Canaanite dieties was more heinous and personal than a surprise military or terror attack.

In today’s chapter, Moses is at the end of his tenure as leader. His last task as leader of the Israelites is to close the loop on the Peor incident. The Midianites are destroyed along with Balaam the seer.

Chapters like today’s are difficult for 21st century readers to comprehend. We cannot comprehend the kill-or-be-killed reality of daily life in the time of Moses. We cannot comprehend living in a time when most humans didn’t live past 15 years of age, and if you were fortunate enough to make it to 15 your life expectancy was still only somewhere between 25-35 years of age.

This morning I’m gratefully meditating on the amazing time and place of history in which I’m fortunate enough to make my life journey. I’m conscious of how totally clueless I am at understanding the realities of Moses’ time, place, and culture. I’m thinking about how Jesus changed the entire paradigm of conversation. In the early chapters of human history, Moses and Aaron were all about building a nation and system of worship that would survive the horrific realities of life on earth in those days. Jesus quite consciously spoke about a very different Kingdom and urged those who follow Him to usher that Kingdom to earth through our thoughts, words, and acts of loving-kindness, mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

Chapter-a-Day Numbers 31

via Flickr and nicocrisafulli

Moses addressed the people: “Recruit men for a campaign against Midian, to exact God’s vengeance on Midian, a thousand from each tribe of Israel to go to war.” Numbers 31:3-4 (MSG)

A week or so ago I sent my kids a compilation CD of music I was listening to 30 years ago when I was in my junior high and high school years. They loved the gift and thought that it was, to quote my youngest, “hilarious.”  Both my daughters and my wife shook their heads and raised an eyebrow at the music that was all the rage when I was young.

How quickly things change. That which was fashionable and common thirty years ago (remember Devo glasses and skinny ties?) is something today’s generation can’t comprehend. My children have a hard time grasping how I could possible listen to that kind of music a few decades ago. How can we possibly imagine what anything in daily life was like thousands of years ago in another part of the world? Despite our archaeological ability to learn things about historic cultures, I’m convinced that we can’t fathom what daily life was really like in other times. I’m equally convinced that if we were able to bring a person from the time of Moses to 21st century America and let them experience our culture they would completely freak out.

Human civilization has changed dramatically in every way, and the way God has interacted and intersected with human civilization has changed with it in the same way that a parent’s interaction changes as their children develop physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. My children perceive me differently than they did when they were five. My interactions with them are much different.

There’s a lot I don’t get about the culture of Moses day and the way God interacted with human civilization in those times and cultures. I don’t understand the cultural mores, the status of women, slavery, the brutality of justice, the economics, the idolatry, the religions of sex and human sacrifice, nor the prominence of war and plundering. I can accept, however, that my 21st century brain can’t fathom what life was like for Moses any more than Moses could fathom a smartphone.

In my journey through the Old Testament I’ve learned to accept that some of my questions about the minutiae of these ancient events may never be answered. Nevertheless, I’ve equally come to appreciate that my understanding of God’s story is incomplete without a knowledge and appreciation for these early chapters.