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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.

  • A Poem - and some Memories

    This week has been characterised by remembering... making a photographic Memory Book for my mother (the photo above is her in her 20s travelling to or from the USA), and researching and writing a tribute for a  funeral. Each of these has been a strange blend of enormous privilege and huge responsibility.  Each has also prompted a lot of my own memories, about my own life thus far, about the joys and sorrows, successes and failures, the things that have shaped - or I have allowed to shape - my personality.  So it's also been a bit of an introspective week, one way and another.

    One of my memories was of the poem cited below.  It is a memory prompt in its own right - I first came across it in a Lent Study back in the 1980s, and I am pretty sure my recollection of the church hall where we met is correct.  It struck me then, and it continues to stirke me every time I recall or read it...

    One day, should I live long enough, I may well be a 'crabbit old woman', which is partly why I want to share it.  If this might be my 'destiny' then it also impacts on my now, the way I live, write, speak or whatever it is: I make my memories, and form those of me in others.


    What do you see, nurse, what do you see?
    What are you thinking, when you look at me?
    A crabbit old woman, not very wise,
    Uncertain of habit, with far-away eyes,
    Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
    When you say in a loud voice,
    I do wish you'd try.
    Who seems not to notice the things that you do
    And forever is loosing a stocking or shoe.
    Who, unresisting or not; lets you do as you will
    With bathing and feeding the long day is fill.

    Is that what you're thinking,
    Is that what you see?
    Then open your eyes,
    nurse, you're looking at me.

    I'll tell you who I am as I sit here so still!
    As I rise at your bidding, as I eat at your will.
    I'm a small child of 10 with a father and mother,
    Brothers and sisters, who loved one another-
    A young girl of 16 with wings on her feet,
    Dreaming that soon now a lover she'll meet,
    A bride soon at 20- my heart gives a leap,
    Remembering the vows that I promised to keep.
    At 25 now I have young of my own
    Who need me to build a secure happy home;
    A woman of 30, my young now grow fast,
    Bound to each other with ties that should last;
    At 40, my young sons have grown and are gone,
    But my man's beside me to see I don't mourn;
    At 50 once more babies play around my knee,
    Again we know children, my loved one and me.
    Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead,
    I look at the future, I shudder with dread,
    For my young are all rearing young of their own.
    And I think of the years and the love that I've known;
    I'm an old woman now and nature is cruel-
    Tis her jest to make old age look like a fool.
    The body is crumbled, grace and vigor depart,
    There is now a stone where I once had a heart,
    But inside this old carcass, a young girl still dwells,
    And now and again my battered heart swells,
    I remember the joy, I remember the pain,
    And I'm loving and living life over again.
    I think of the years all too few- gone too fast.
    And accept the stark fact that nothing can last-

    So open your eyes, nurse, open and see,
    Not a crabbit old woman, look closer-
    See Me.


  • Way Out Lent (18) Exodus 37-38

    These last four chapters of Exodus (I cheated and scanned ahead before I did my close reading) describe the making and erecting of the Tabernacle.  The text is highly detailed and repeats much of what Moses is recorded as having been told by God whilst he was on the mountain, so it is quite tempting to skim over it especially when some of it turns into the "church accounts" measured in gold, silver and bronze.

    There are however things to be gleaned, if one has the time or inclination to dig a little deeper.

    Bronze Mirrors

    "Bronze Mirror" was the title of one my reading books at primary school - I remember nothing about it, except that it comprised myths and legends of Greek and maybe Roman origin.  These polished metal mirrors are alluded to in 1 Corinthians as the means by which we may glimpse "a dim reflection", a poor image and yet one that is worth seeing.

    In the account of what is brought for the making of the Tabernacle, one detail is that the women who served at the edge of the tent of meeting brought their bronze mirrors.  These were melted down and used to make the basin which was to be used by the priests to wash their hands as part of their ritual purification.

    The women chose to relinquish something that they valued, and that had allowed them to see their own image, presumably to tend their appearance, something associated with beauty and perhaps self esteem.  With no mirrors they had no way of checking what they looked like, which may have been a challenge for some of them... even I like to check I'm not too dishevelled before I go out or when I come in! 

    I'm not quite sure what a contemporary equivalent might be, but I am intrigued by the idea of letting go of something that is associated with beauty or appearance in order that it be transformed into something used for purification or within worship.  I suspect, though, that were I to arrive at church looking like I'd been dragged through a hedge backwards, there would be - totally legitimate - comments!! ;-)

    Many a mickle... or, Every Little Helps

    A good chunk of the text is taken up with details about how mucc gold, silver and bronze was donated for the work.  Expressed in Talents, Shekels and Bekas it can seem a bit meaningless.  So I did a bit of digging around on the web and discovered that:

    1 Talent = 3000 Shekels

    1 shekel weighs roughly 10g

    So, in contemporary measures that means

    roughly 877kg gold

    roughly 3018kg silver (just over three tonnes)

    roughly 2124kg bronze (a little over two tonnes)

    Huge quantities, and clearly equivalent to an awful lot of money in today's terms, even with fluctuating metal prices.

    But wait, there is an easily overlooked detail... the silver is donated by the men aged 26 and over counted in the census - numbered as 603,550.  The average amount per person is therefore half a shekel - called a beka - or roughly 5g.  According to one website I  looked at, 5g of finest quality silver has a scrap value of about £1.50.  Irrespective of the purchasing power, that's not a lot of money.  Yet when everyone gave their £1.50 worth of silver... Many a mickle maks a muckle, every little helps... we know this, yet still sometimes it's good to be reminded of it.  I for one can be guilty of focussing on the huge sums that required for projects to the detriment of valuing the 'mickles' or the 'bekas' that mount up.  There is balance somewhere - simply, and solely, collecting pennies is probably not going to finance a building project or fund a mission worker, however well intentioned.  At the same time, focussing on big numbers can disempower those who would gladly give their half a shekel, or their bronze mirror...

    Again, it's the details that are so easily overlooked that are striking.  A reminder that the little things matter, the 'little people' matter and their gifts are often, as with the widow and her two tiny mites, the most valuable of all.