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  • Way Out Lent (20) Numbers 1-2

    The book of Numbers, better described by its Hebrew name of something like "Wilderness Wanderings" picks up where Exodus left off.  Or does it?

    The first sentence tells us that the Lord spoke to Moses on the first day of the second month after the people left Egypt, which means this was just a few weeks after the completion of the Tabernacle and ordination of the priests in the first month of the second year with which Exodus ended.

    So far, so good.  But then we discover that Moses is told by God to conduct a census, by tribe and clan, of every man aged 20 or over who could be enlisted to fight, a total, excluding the Levites who were the one 'reserved occupation', of 603,500 - the exact same number identified in Exodus as the number of men who gave an average of a beka of silver each to help build the tabernacle, but were there noted as 26 years old or over.

    So, if we want to be strictly literal here, we have problems.  When did the census take place?  What was the minimum age at which men were counted?

    Or we can rationalise it, seeing this as a second census which gave the same result, and find a means of making sense of the age disparity, be that there was no-one between 20 and 26, or that the exact same number had died (conveniently) in the intervening period so that it evened out.

    Or we can choose not to fret over this, recognising, as we have done already, that these ancient documents are not like the 'Modern' histories (let alone Revisionist or Post-Modern histories) that we may be more familiar with.

    What we have here is a sense of an emergent nature seeking to order its affairs, deciding what the age of conscription might be, who might be exempted from military service and so on.  We don't have to like the purpose of the census, or the fact that women and children were excluded, but it does give us a sense of a growing population and a need for appropriate governance.

    I was struck by the fact that the tribe of Joseph is divided into two branches, Ephraim and Mannesah, retaining the sense of twelve-ness even after the Levites have been been exlcuded from the census. There is a need for symmetry, it seems, that the camp around the tent of meeting, each tribe with its own defined place, evidently needs there to be twelve groups, regiments, divisions, whatever language we choose.

    The idea of surrounding the Tabernacle on all sides, protecting both it and the Levites in the process, is powerful and, dare I say, quite beautiful in its own way.  Everyone plays their part in surrounding and protecting what lies at the very heart of their faith.  Possibly perversely, it makes me call to mind the celtic circling prayers in which God is invoked to do precisely this for the person, or occasionally community, expressing them...

    Circle me, Lord keep darkness out, keep light within...

    Circle me, Lord, keep fear without, keep peace within...

    Similarly, St Patrick's breasplate - Christ before me, behind me, above me, below me, on my left and my right.

    I'm not sure that leads anywhere - I'm certainly not saying that God needs our encircling protection, literal or metaphorical, it just makes me pause to wonder who or what we might choose to surround in such a way, watching on all sides...

    Essentially, I guess, this first couple of chapters is a pre-amble, a scene-setting exercise, a bridge between the last scroll and this one.  A kind of a recap perhaps, a reminder of how things are, before we launch fully into the next phase of the story. 

    Already we are half way through Lent, already, around us, preparations for Easter are being made, for now though, we try to stay in the present moment, noting where we are, and listening for the whisper of God's voice.

  • Lessons from Pygmalion

    This morning I decided that as it was such a glorious day I would take myself off for a long walk, go somewhere nice and have coffee and/or lunch out (hence photo of coffee and scone!). I was conscious of having made rods for my own back, especially in relation to stuff I've blogged, and that sometimes that has proved problematic.  I needed to clear my head, dump some rubbish and refresh my mind.

    The last six weeks have seen me make a textbook recovery from my surgery... being boringly obedient has had excellent results, so much so that today I was able to walk a good 8.5 miles with no bother at all.  The textbook nature of my experience also means that, suddenly, all the hormones in my body are utterly messed up, with effects, at least short term that aren't so great.  I have at times felt unbelievably sad and at others equally unbelievably angry, neither with any obvious underlying cuase or justification.  My instinctive reaction is to tell myself to pull myself together, to get over it and get on with it.  Which works up to a point.  But only up to a point.  Sometimes I say things in ways that aren't helpful; other times I crumple and crumble in response to things I'd normally shrug off.  Such feelings and experiences are, apparently, normal, textbook stuff, so I need to be kind to myself and allow my body time to adjust to the shock it's been given.

    In the meantime, I'm reminded of a scene in the play "Pygmalion" where Henry is about to introduce Eliza to the Eynsford-Hills and tells his mother that everything will be fine, because he's told her to "stick to the weather and everyone's health".  Whilst his mother sees folly even in this, the intent is right - stick to things that have the least chance of being contentious, of being misunderstood or badly expressed.

    I think this is wise advice for me to follow.  So for a while at least, I will be posting more carefully selected material, reducing, if not eliminating, the potential for me to open my mouth only to change feet.

    For the last decade, this blog has been maionly "stream of consciousness" posting rather than refined reflection - an approach which has strengthes and weaknesses.  It may now be time to review whether that practice is still wise, and/or how that impacts on what I chose to write about.  Importnat stuff, and well worth pondering.  Offline!


    I had a lovely day out, fear I may actually have got slightly sunburned (!) and enjoyed some of may favourite places in Glasgow.  Many moons ago my Ministry Mentor told me that sometimes I should just bunk off, it was good for the soul... doing so today certainly has been. :-)

  • Way Out Lent (19) Exodus 39,40

    Well done loyal reader - if you have stuck with me this far, you have made it through the whole of Exodus!

    The final couple of chapters are mainly taken up with description of the making of the vestments for Aaron and his sons in their perpetual ordination as a priestly order/clan.  Again, it's tempting to skim-read and so miss odd details that are, in my view, worth noting.

    A Huge Project!

    We are not told exactly how many people were involved in making the items that would form the Tabernacle, the sacred objects to go inside it or the garments for the priests, but it is safe to assume it must have been a lot.  When everything is complete, the people bring it to Moses, who notes that everything has been completed exactly as required... for once the people have obeyed God's commands to the letter - not one 'jot or tittle' has been overlooked.  After all that has gone on before, now is a good day, an excellent day - and Moses blesses the people.

    I imagine the people were were pretty chuffed with themselves - and rightly so, they had achieved something incredible.  This for everyone was the culmination of a long, challenging project begun at a time when they seem to have been in some state of disarray following the Golden Calf incident.

    There can be something hugely unifying about sharing in a large, complex project.  There can be a shared sense of purpose that draws people together in ways not otherwise so easy to achieve.

    There is something good in pausing to savour the moment when a project is completed - but also the recognition that this is a pause not an ending, a marker on a journey (literal or metaphorical) not an ultimate destination.  And that can be tricky for everyone.

    For now, though, a moment to rejoice with the Israelites as they complete a huge project successfully.

    A Year On...

    We are told that this project was completed, and the Tabernacle dedicated on Day 1 of Month 1 of Year 2 after the people left Egypt.  Without getting hung up on the chronology and its literal or symbolic significance, what we do see is that this emergent nation has come a long way very quickly.  Since leaving Egypt there has been what management courses refer to as "storming, norming and performing" as structure of governance and a legal framework emerged.  Moses has had to learn how to lead this "stiff-necked people" and of his own need for support in so-doing.  The people have moaned and grumbled about how much better the old regime was; the unintended consequences of the choices they made have begun to emerge, and they have flirted with an alternative religious framework.

    Cloud and Fire

    This section, and with it the scroll, ends by telling us that cloud descends on the Tabernacle, a sign that God's glory fills it, and that Moses cannot enter it unless or until the cloud lifts.  I do find myself wondering at this - so much effort has gone into creating it, and now no-one is allowed in because God is there.  I guess it reflects a very different worldview, and serves as yet another reminder that we need to be careful when we approach these texts not read in what isn't there or read out through unhelpful lenses.

    The cloud by day and the fire by night, and when they lift, the people move on, in step with God's leading.  Maybe that's the point, the message to be found?  In the letter to the Galatians we are urged to "keep in step with the Spirit".  I am reminded of a conversation with a minister friend many years back about this verse, and a shared observation that this meant neither lagging behind (the interpretation we had both heard many times) nor running on ahead (an interpretation neither of us had heard) but going at the same pace as God's Spirit.  Maybe the Israeilites, for all their stubborness, wilfulness and apparent slowness in understanding, might also have been tempted to rush on ahead, to try to get to their final destination as quickly as possible, thereby arriving without learning whatever they stil needed to learn.  Maybe they needed the steadying presence of the cloud/fire.  Maybe I/we do too.


    So that's Exodus in 19 days!  I've discovered and rediscovered a lot from this close reading, and have found myself challenged along the way.  Tomorrow it will be on to Numbers... and you are invited to journey on with me, if you find that interesting or helpful.