Numbers 1-4

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Ever been in traffic and tried to maximize your movement by switching lanes again and again? It’s an exercise in futility really, because in traffic all lanes are equal for the most part. It’s like flipping a coin. You may get 4 heads in a row, but keep flipping and it’ll all even out between heads and tails. So it’s best to stay in one lane. Because switching lanes makes things worse. Instead of relying on the natural ebb and flow, you move during the flow just in time for the ebb. Keep switching lanes and it’s more ebbs. Ebbs upon ebbs. Meanwhile the white honda civic you were behind in the 3rd lane, who just stayed where he was at, has already gotten a good half mile ahead.

That’s not exactly how my week has been, but it gets to the point. My traffic this week was wonderful, stimulating, encouraging, motivating. But it messed with my schedule and got me behind on other tasks. I kept thinking I’ll fit in my Scripture during a free time, but when that free time came something important or delightful came up and I missed the chance.

So, instead of trying to keep changing lanes to find my free time I’m going to try to get back to a morning rhythm.

Today I have Numbers 1-4 to look at.

I immediately see why it’s named the way it is. It starts with a census, a numbering of the people. Continues on to a diagram about the camp, showing where each family is to live and where the RV hookups are located.

It’s not very interesting reading really. Am I allowed to say that? I mean it’s Scripture and all, but it’s pretty dry in this part.

One thing I remember is these really aren’t necessarily details meant for me. I’m not currently dealing with organizational principles of a mass exodus of people into a new land, and so haven’t really a pragmatic use for these verses. Yet they do tell me a few important things.

God is a God of order. He is a God who makes plans, who has practical and organizational rules alongside the moral and ethical rules. It’s not enough here to say go to the Land. Rather, God is organizing his people so there is no chaos at any point, so that the movement and the stopping is free from disorder.

God is also a God of history. Looking at these chapters I’m not struck by the elegant prose or the inspirational speeches or the mythical feats of derring-do. We’re given lists. Lists are important, if not interesting, because they are grounding the narrative in real names and real, well, numbers. They show that the writer is establishing the story within the real of real life, where there are people, and organizational problems, and lists that have to be compiled.

I also notice a third thing. There is a change in tone in this book. Before there was discussion about the people or the community. Rules about how to live in a settled peace with neighbors and fellow citizens. Now, however, we’re reading a manual of military order. The people are counted, so the number of fighting men from each tribe can be known. The tribes are organized by regiments and placed in a defensive posture around the central focus of the tabernacle.

Israel is being prepared to become a military force. The Promised Land is near. They are no longer slaves. They are a People.

Then in chapters 3 and 4 we move from the other tribes to focus on just one, the Levites, who were called God’s own tribe. They were the chosen people of the chosen people, organized for the purpose of religious tasks. Again there is order and a system set up to maintain consistent patterns of response. This goes a long way in reducing the all too strong tendency of political wrangling. Tasks stay within a family. There is always order, and little confusion about plans or assignments. The people don’t have to think, they just do their assigned tasks. This organization gets really important during times of stress or war.

So, these chapters really aren’t all that interesting. But they are important because they tell us of a change in seasons with the people of Israel, and they tell us of the order and organization of God in working with his people. They ground us in history and they provide reference material for later passages. When we hear Israel camped, from these chapters we know what that looked like.

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